We’ve Got Facebook. Who Needs Cars?

Want to get on my nerves? Say this: “Now we have the Internet, so we no longer need to x,” where x is anything other than “balance a checkbook.”

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There are two things you, dear reader, should know about me before reading this post.

1) This may come as something of a surprise for a guy writing on this website, but I like driving. I certainly do not believe we should organize our communities expressly for the automobile, and I also think public policy ought to favor transit whenever feasible. But, for the most part, I have no particular moral compunction about car ownership. I think people who believe we can will away the personal car are about as delusional as people who thought that towers, parks and highways were all you really needed for a well-functioning city.

2) Want to get on my nerves? Say this: “Now we have the Internet, so we no longer need to x,” where x is anything other than “balance a checkbook.” I’m exaggerating here, but only a little.

I bring both of these up because I’ve read a variety of reports pinning a lack of interest in driving and cars amongst teens and twentysomethings on, you guessed it, the Internet. I assume this is because journalists (a group in which I count myself) seem to have trouble coming up with any reason other than the Internet to explain teen or twentysomething behavior because, frankly, there are any number of simpler, more logical reasons to explain this trend. Pinning it on the Internet is Occam’s Razor in reverse.

For example, a January blog post on The New Republic hinged on what was really an off-hand comment from Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown: “In contrast, many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars.”

Maybe it’s the whole “more urban society” thing that actually explains this phenomenon and not Facebook. But while the Internet is radically changing many aspects of our lives, it is not doing anything whatsoever to remove the need for face-to-face socialization. You cannot convince me otherwise because this need is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Facebook is not. But TNR’s editors decided to ask if its Facebook that is killing car culture and not the much more mundane subway or bus.

I asked EPI about this, and Research Director Janet Larsen acknowledged that “Facebook alone is not killing the car,” citing urbanization and graduated licensing programs as other reasons. Sheer market saturation is another possibility, Larsen notes. The US has 246 million cars but only 209 million licensed drivers, a situation that, while unsurprising, frankly defies reason. There would be precedent for that, too: Japan hit “peak car“ in 1990.

Though this is purely anecdotal, I know many, many people who do not own cars. Nobody has ever told me “Yeah, I was thinking of getting a car, but, I’ve got my iPhone, so who needs it?” Rather, they cite practical reasons: we live in New York. Parking is a hassle. Insurance is expensive. Public transit is abundant. Even people I know who have delayed driving in suburban, car-oriented areas usually did so for economic reasons, or because they simply did not like it. These reasons all make sense. But, problematically, they lack the “whiz-bang-those-doggone-kids” aspect of saying that Facebook is really changing everything.

I will allow that certain aspects of the Internet can make having a car-free lifestyle easier. But it is, at best, a secondary reason for declining interest in driving.

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Tags: new york cityinfrastructurepublic transportationcarsinternet accessjapan

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