by Andrew Hitchcock
If we want to change driving habits in the United States, we have to start young. A large part of the high school experience and a child's rite of passage involves the automobile. Once a person has this notion of driving everywhere planted in them, it is hard to remove.
Being a recent high school graduate from a suburban high school, I think it is sad how true this is. Younger high school students look forward to turning 16 so they can finally learn to drive and increase their mobility. Getting a driver's license or car is probably the biggest event in most teenagers' high school careers. My suburb was fairly affluent, so most kids had cars, but they got angry because there were not enough places around the school to park. The farthest house in the school district from the high school was only five miles away, yet very few got to school under their own power. Most opted for school bus, car, or carpool.
Most teenagers I met viewed getting a car as the start of their independence. When I reached this age, however, my animosity for cars and driving began. I did, unfortunately, drive for a few years, but this reinforced my belief that I was shackled to the car. It was hard to get anywhere without the car, since my neighborhood had minimal public transit, and the distances were so large. Half way through senior year I finally got fed up and vowed to bike ride whenever possible. I tested the ride to high school...45 minutes. Well, I wasn't sure what exactly was the best route, so I figured that would come down. And it did. Within a few days the time decreased to less than half an hour. By the end of the school year it was only 15 minutes by bike, which is maybe five minutes longer than if I had taken the car and parked close, or about the same time it would have taken if I had had to park farther away. (No parking was allowed on the residential streets). Instead of a car for graduation, like I'm sure many people got, I made it perfectly clear that I didn't want one. Instead, I asked for a bike and wound up getting it before graduating, to make my daily commute nicer.
Many of my peers would spend a great deal of time talking about cars... much of that time about how theirs broke down, or their latest accidents. It horrified me when I heard about people who in got three or more accidents, and their parents kept paying the bills and letting them drive. The most alienating thing about teenage culture, in my opinion, was "cruising." I tagged along a few times with my friends when they went "cruising," but I must say I couldn't really see the allure. Most of the time this consisted of either driving around with no destination, or leaning on cars hanging out in parking lots. Parking lots, probably the most ugly places in existence! I can't find anything worthwhile in this activity, yet it was a huge part of many of my colleagues' lives at that point.
Why are cars so important to teenagers? I can think of two main reasons: independence and privacy. In most suburbs, you can't go many places without a car. Before turning 16, kids would have to catch a ride with their parents, siblings, or friends. How inconvienent is that! This is the reason why soccer moms are so busy--they have to ferry their kids around all day from event to event. It is no better for the kids, they feel completely dependent, and actually it causes negative productivity (since it takes another person's time to drive them). Cars also provide privacy. I don't think anyone would want their mom tagging along on a date. Cars allow for makeout sessions away from parents, as anyone who has seen any teen movie or horror film can attest.
How to negate these benefits? By having dense neighborhoods and good public transit, pre-teens and younger teenagers can become mobile and independent long before turning 16. If you can get around just fine without a car, getting a car isn't such a big deal. I would have loved to have a fast transit system in place when I was growing up; then I would have had more opportunities and have been less of a burden on my folks. Second, kids need the ability to get privacy. Cars block sound, have locking doors, and can be taken far away from family. Kids should be given locks on their bedroom doors and shouldn't be given a hard time about it when they do end up locking their door. As kids mature, they need privacy. Giving them privacy shows that you think they are responsible and trustworthy. That can be a bigger gift than any Honda you might buy.
We need to move the American (suburban?) idea of rite-of-passage away from the automobile. If we can do this, perhaps we can raise a whole generation that isn't married to their cars. Better public transit would help tremendously, but that isn't feasible in most suburbs because of lack of density (chicken and egg). If pre-teens and younger teens are able to be mobile without a car (using bikes and/or public transit), then getting a car wouldn't be as such a big deal.
Perhaps someone should write a teen movie set in a city with transit, and where none of the teens have cars. I'd like to see the end of the movie where the kids take the subway to prom.