by Karl Coplan

Kiplinger carried a report last week suggesting that Generation Y (20-30 year olds) are buying fewer cars than previous generations of Americans. This generation, apparently, is less likely to see a car as a necessity and more likely to take public transportation than their elders.  Tellingly, Generation Y also perceives driving to be bad for the environment: “They’re likely to see autos as a source of pollution, not as a sex or status symbol.”

Although the story is pitched as bad news for the auto industry as it tries to generate sales, in this case, what is bad for General Motors is good for the United States (the government’s equity stake notwithstanding).  The transportation sector in the U.S. makes up 33% of total greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Personal automobile travel accounts for close to 60% of these emissions, and is one of the major reasons that U.S. per capita greenhouse gas emissions are so much higher than other countries (even other developed countries).  Legal change will not come without political change, and political change will not come without cultural change.  Before we can legislate limits on greenhouse gas emissions, whether through carbon pricing or other means, we have to break the culture of consumption.  The news that Generation Y is less likely to view a car as a necessity comes as welcome news that perhaps the car culture that has gripped this nation for over half a century is coming to an end.  We collectively broke the cigarette culture, perhaps we can do the same for “car cool.”

It will take time for any cultural change in the United States to percolate through, and we may not have time.  A change in US car culture may not convince upwardly mobile denizens in India and China to forgo their own automotive mobility.  But US culture, in the form of movie and television exports, does eventually affect the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, this fifty-something baby boomer got to work this beautiful Fall morning by paddling a kayak across the Hudson River and biking eight miles. Other days I take the bus, since a few years ago I got rid of my car…by giving it to my twenty-something son.