Two days after I turned 16, I took my driver’s license test, ran a stop sign and flunked. Before I could even weep about it, I booked another exam for the following month because I couldn’t wait for the freedom of the open road.
In other words, I was a normal teen. But a staggering number of young people today are giving up this rite of passage, and it’s happening so fast that motor experts are struggling to make sense of it.
In case my fingernail-sized headshot deceives you, I am not an orthopedic-shoe wearing man with his cell phone clipped to the waistband. Yet since around the time I got my license, the number of 16 to 34-year-old registered drivers in the Capital area has dropped 14 per cent.
This would make mathematical sense in just about any other region, since the last of the Boomers exceeded this demographic in the mid-90s and were followed by smaller cohorts. However, Edmonton’s population is booming, especially in this age group.
In the same time that the number of licensed young people dipped, the demographic in Edmonton proper has grown by nearly a quarter.
Why are they eschewing this practically baptismal tradition — even while average Edmonton families become more affluent and the city stretches so fast that bussing across it becomes about as fun as final exams?
It turns out that it’s happening across North America, and it seems to be a confluence of reasons.
For one, public transit isn’t just better now, as seen in the spate of new LRT stations over the decade, but smart-phone technology has made managing it easier, too. All one needs to find the nearest, soonest bus to their destination is Google Maps, while cities like Edmonton are now offering real-time updates on some routes via GPS.
It also seems that the price of parking, insurance and that smelly liquid the average household spends $2,600 on a year is a trade-off fewer are willing to make.
When I reached out to my social network about this, I found a surprising number of people who said they didn’t drive out of fear of hurting themselves and others. Chalk that up to what you want — a coddled generation, practical thinking about one of the leading cause of death — the anxiety is enough to keep hands off wheels.
But above all, it’s changing values.
The old North American rite of passage is becoming less so, signifying a burden to some when it was the ultimate freedom before.
Meanwhile things like laptops, tablets and especially smart phones have become a new rite of passage. For teens especially, a private computer is the first taste of an unsupervised life, offering the freedom of open web, while the cost of maintaining it deflects from car ownership.
Gen Ys and Millenials have also been observed to spend more than their seniors on upscale casual restaurants and other small luxuries that make saving for and maintaining a car less important if not impossible.
This could all change as trends do, but we may also be looking at a turning point in society. How it pans out could dramatically affect our city.