September 4, 2015

BECAUSE IT’S BEING REGULATED TO DEATH: “America’s Once Magical–Now Mundane–Love Affair With Cars.” This Washington Post piece is a classic lamestream media outcome-oriented approach to an issue. The writer, Marc Fisher, starts with his thesis–that Americans aren’t passionate about cars anymore–and then proceeds to prove his thesis with some data showing driver’s license decline, professors with silly theories, and anecdotal stories. He gives only passing consideration to the possibility that “it’s the regulation, stupid.”

“The automobile just isn’t that important to people’s lives anymore,” says Mike Berger, a historian who studies the social effect of the car. “The automobile provided the means for teenagers to live their own lives. Social media blows any limits out of the water. You don’t need the car to go find friends.”

Much of the emotional meaning of the car, especially to young adults, has transferred to the smartphone, says Mark Lizewskie, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pa. “Instead of Ford versus Chevy, it’s Apple versus Android, and instead of customizing their ride, they customize their phones with covers and apps,” he says. “You express yourself through your phone, whereas lately, cars have become more like appliances, with 100,000-mile warranties.” . . .

The number of vehicles on American roads soared every year until the recession hit in 2008. Then the number plummeted. Recently, it’s crept back up. Similarly, the number of drivers has leveled off.

“In the near future, cars will control the driver instead of the other way around,” says John Heitmann, a historian at the University of Dayton who studies Americans’ relationship with automobiles. (He also is restoring a 1971 Porsche 911T Targa.) “And the way we live now, especially on the coasts, it’s a bother to own a car. For young people, and not just the urban elite, there’s not even a desire to drive.”

Americans drive fewer miles per year — down about 9 percent over the past two decades. The percentage of 19-year-olds with driver’s licenses has dropped from 87 percent two decades ago to 70 percent last year. Most teens now do not get licensed within a year of becoming eligible, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. . . .

The return of young people to city centers brings a permanent pivot in how people think about getting around, says Gabe Klein, a Zipcar founder who went on to run the city transportation departments in Chicago and Washington.

Klein, 44, says cars have become a burden, a symbol of a model of living gone sour. “We were sold a bill of goods by the government,” he says, “by real estate developers who wanted to sell tract housing far from the city, by car companies who sold us this new lifestyle of living in the suburbs and commuting in.”

That suburban model is not something to rebuild from the ravages of recession, but rather a lifestyle that technology will let Americans discard, Klein argues. “Car culture is really a brief 50- or 60-year blip in history,” he says.

None of this is wrong, exactly, as it’s mostly just the opinion of some liberals/progressives, combined with some data showing that there has been small decline in the number of young people obtaining driver’s licenses.

But the overall thesis of the piece–that Americans are no longer passionate about cars–is, at best premature, and likely wrong. The rate of driver’s licenses for young people is declining because of the incredible regulatory hoops they now have to jump through in order to get a license. It is virtually impossible in many States to get your driver’s license on your 16th birthday, as I (and probably many readers) did. Here in Florida, for example, youngsters must hold their learner’s permit for a full 12 months before applying for a driver’s license, and the learner’s permit requires passing a difficult written test and a substance abuse course. Few public schools here offer a driver’s ed course, so the burden of teaching young adults how to drive falls solely on the parents, or the parents must spring for expensive private lessons. 

I’m not complaining about these rules, per se. Ensuring that young people know the rules of the road before getting behind the wheel is a good thing overall, but it does impact whether and how quickly they begin to drive. The high cost of gasoline, insurance, and cars themselves are further deterrents to young people. Today’s cars are highly regulated, complex machines and consequently very expensive. And once one saves up the money to afford today’s cars, one cannot simply change the oil and filters by one’s self. Heck, my car has a giant cover over the entire engine that must be removed before one could even figure out where the oil stick is. Jumping the battery requires a Ph.D.

It seems to me that all of the costs and regulations are sapping the passion to drive, not mobile phones or a love of public transportation. If you regulate any activity (other than items for which there is inelastic demand, and driving is not one of those), the activity will decline commensurate with the level of regulation/cost increase.

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