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The Young and the Carless

Among millennials, the love affair with the automobile is turning chilly.

July 31, 2012
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage, Work/Life Balance, Corporate Culture, Generations, Benefits, Workplace Culture
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Will Sharp is your typical suburbanite. The Barrington resident is married with a 10-month-old son and commutes 40 miles every day to his retail job in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Except he does it without a car.

Sharp, 31, moved to the Chicago area in 2009 from New York, where he and his wife, Rebecca, found car ownership both unaffordable and impractical. Now, he says, he could buy one, but rather than making monthly car payments and paying for gas, tolls and parking, he prefers saving the money for a down payment on a house one day.

"We're renting at the moment, and it's basically a decision of car ownership versus home ownership," he says. So he relies on a combination of the Metra commuter train, the Chicago Transit Authority, friends' and relatives' cars, the occasional rental—and his own two feet. "I walk five miles a day. That's the only exercise I get as a new father."

Among millennials, the love affair with the automobile is turning chilly. For previous generations, car ownership was a rite of passage that often coincided with receiving a driver's license at age 16. The equation was simple: wheels equal freedom. But because of philosophical and practical concerns, fewer in this recession-socked generation are driving their own vehicles. They're also enabled by the growth of rental outfits such as Cambridge, Massachusetts-based ZipCar Inc. and Chicago nonprofit I-Go Car Sharing and, for those who've moved back home, mom and dad.

One in four households within the city limits has no vehicle, according to 2010 U.S. Census information, compared with less than 10 percent of households across the country. That's nearly double the 14 percent of Chicago households that were carless in 2000.

Nationally, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by people ages 16 to 34 dropped 23 percent, to 7,900 from 10,300, between 2001 and 2009, according to the federal government's National Household Travel Survey.

Today, only 22 percent of drivers are 20-somethings or teenagers, down from a third in 1983, according to a 2011 study by the University of Michigan. Further, more than half of all drivers in 1983 were under age 40, but today that number has fallen to less than 40 percent, declining faster than this age cohort's share of the U.S. population.

Liz Granger, 25, grew up in Omaha, Neb., smack in the middle of car culture. She got her license at 16 and drove until she went to Northwestern University in 2005. Since graduating, she has spent time in Uganda on a Fulbright scholarship, walking everywhere, and now commutes via bike from her Pilsen apartment to an internship and job as a yoga instructor in the Loop.

Granger figures that, at most, just 20 percent of her friends from college own cars. One of her former roommates received a car for graduation and eventually sent it back to her parents' after dealing with the headaches of city driving.

"Down the road, I will need a car," Granger says, "but I'm happy to delay the purchase as long as possible." She says that cargo biking gear, which allows riders to haul loads of groceries and other goods on their bikes, plus car-sharing services, are delaying that purchase even longer.

"We have this American idea about cars as freedom," says Jason Rothstein, a 40-year-old West Town resident who gave up his car eight years ago, after his third driver's-side mirror was knocked off in a six-week span. "But a car comes with a lot of financial responsibility and other burdens."

Rothstein, a public health project manager at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of "Carless in Chicago," mostly takes public transportation, rides his bike or walks to get around. Trips may take longer, but he says he is free of credit card debt today largely because of his choice. He calculates that owning a car cost him $7,600 a year. According to the U.S. Census, Chicagoans who ride public transit to work rather than drive save $1,016 a month, more than the $843 national average.

"Particularly when you're at the age where you're trying to make ends meet, it makes a substantial difference in your quality of life," Rothstein says. "It may be the difference between affording tuition or taking advantage of all the great restaurants in Chicago or taking a vacation."

There are consequences, to be sure. Sharp says his wife, a stay-at-home mother, sometimes feels trapped within a walking-distance radius. And carless people acknowledge that shopping runs require extra planning and can be a pain. But they also generally say inconveniences are far outweighed by the benefits of saving money and the environment.

This mindset shift is affecting city planning and local businesses.

Gabe Klein, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, predicts that bike traffic in Chicago will quadruple in the next five years, partly because of an ambitious citywide program that calls for 10,000 bike-share bicycles and 100 miles of protected bike lanes by 2020.

Meanwhile I-Go has grown by nearly 25 percent this year in terms of members, usage and number of cars. CEO Sharon Feigon says her company has 15,000 to 20,000 members who share a fleet of about 300 cars.

The members' ages range widely, she says, but tend to skew toward people in their 30s who have committed to long-term city living. I-Go research shows that members pay about $3,500 annually for the membership, public transportation passes and the occasional taxi, whereas car owners spend at least twice that.

Scott Klocksin, 29, a Wilmette native who spent a year and a half as a New York bike messenger, says one of the biggest gains of going carless isn't financial.

"If you bike, you establish a sense of connection between the locales of your daily life that isn't possible via other modes of transport," he says. "It's you, 180 degrees of peripheral vision and the streetscape—and it fundamentally changes your relationship with the city."

Filed by Brigid Sweeney of Crain's Chicago Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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