Going Car-Less: The New Rite of Passage

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A former boss of mine, upon learning that I do not now nor have I ever owned a car, dispensed the following well-intentioned advice: “You need to own a car… I mean, you have to grow up someday.”

For the record, let me state that I am 26 years old, earn a decent living doing work I enjoy, am engaged to be married, and live in the San Francisco Bay Area. So for me, owning a car as a necessary rite of passage into adulthood is simply untrue.

For me and others of my generation, the markers of being a capital-G “Grown up” have radically shifted. For one thing, the migration of young families from urban areas to the suburbs has reversed. As a result, the accumulation of the historical accoutrements of adulthood — a house with a big lawn enclosed by a white picket fence and a garage with one and possibly even two cars in it — have been replaced by an apartment near public transportation and a Zipcar account when traveling to destinations where subways, trains and buses don’t go.

(Full disclosure and a necessary caveat: my fiancee does own a car and so I can get access to four wheels and a combustion engine when I need one. But the days of criss-crossing San Francisco and the Bay via BART, Muni and Caltrain — with BART tickets and Muni transfers stuffed in my wallet and the pockets of all my jackets — are not that far behind me and are likely in my future. Also, I do recognize that outside of well-connected urban areas such as San Francisco, New York City and Boston, it would be much harder to function without a car.

A recent study from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Frontier Group identified three reasons why car ownership has declined among my demographic. The first reason has to do with economics. With a struggling economy and weak job prospects for Millennials, a big purchase like a car is less appealing and for some people, out of reach.

The second reason has to do with the proliferation of alternatives to car ownership, for example, car sharing services such as Zipcar and City CarShare.

Even for those who own cars, there are options beyond passive ownership. A number of people in my age group make money on the side with their vehicles by driving for one of the app-based car services like Lyft or Uber.

My friend Jared explained his reasoning for driving for Uber: “I needed extra cash so I could go back to school. It also didn’t hurt that during peak times I was making more dollars per hour than I was at my salaried job at the time.”

Another alternative is letting the car make money while you’re not using it, via peer-to-peer car-sharing services such as RelayRides or Getaround.

My friend Shelby, founder of RelayRides, tapped into the sharing economy trend early. In an article back in 2010, he observed, “I think there’s a real trend of people rejecting ownership in favor of access. You look at things like Netflix, RentTheRunway, Zipcar, or various textbook rental programs. You get the benefits of ownership without the hassle and cost.”

The third reason is cultural and has to do with status symbols. When I first started working for my former boss, I asked whether a car was required for my job. She said “no,” but had simply assumed I had one.

More than that, she grew up in a time when a car served as a physical benchmark of her success. When I worked for her, she alternated driving to work in her Porsche or her Lexus SUV.

But times have changed, and status symbols for my generation are undeniably the newest tech toys — phones, tablets, and fitness wearables. Vehicles are for transportation, not status.

My lack of a car, and more importantly, my lack of desire to get one, has less to do with a refusal to “grow up” and more to do with a convergence of economic, technological, and cultural trends — a tacit acknowledgement of the changing aspirations of a younger generation.

[Photo Credit: Rubel Roy on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0]