Driving in decline in the Western world

The ‘young riders’ of On the Road survey the US landscape during one of their meandering journeys.

In countries all over the rich world, people are turning away from their cars – and young people are using them less than anyone. Have we come to the end of the open road?

The statistic seems like one more example of recession in action. Petrol sales, British papers announced, have plummeted: tough times are forcing drivers to scrimp on cars and travel less.

The news is part of a wider trend. All over the rich world, people are turning their backs on the car. In the USA, kilometres driven are falling, after plateauing in 2004. The UK’s traffic levels have been stagnant for a decade, and car use has declined in France, Australia and Spain.

The trend is driven by one particular group: the young. Between 1992 and 2007, the proportion of car owners among 21 to 29-year-olds dropped from 75% to 66%; in 1978, 50% of American 16-year-olds had a driving license; by 2008, it was just 30%.

Why are so many people rejecting the road? It is partly down to saturation: the first people that learned to drive are now elderly, so new drivers replace old ones, rather than adding to the pool.

But there is a wider reason. Now people can shop, socialise and work from the comfort of their sofas, cars are no longer necessary. The automobile is just not as desirable as it was 20 years ago.

It’s a sad development in a complicated relationship, that goes back to before the 1910s. Then, Americans aspired to the innovation and affluence embodied by the Ford Model T, and sales of the car fuelled a consumer boom that helped make the dream a reality.

The honeymoon period lasted for years. In the 1950s and 60s, a car meant independence and freedom. Teenagers flocked to drive-in theatres, and watched movies that glorified automobiles – like the famous American Graffiti, in which no-hopers become sexy by cruising in their car.

Of all love-letters to the automobile, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is among the most heartfelt. In the ‘Beat Generation’ novel and film, Kerouac’s alter-ego drives across America, searching for direction with his reckless friends. It portrays the open road as a world of unknown possibilities, far from mainstream society: a place where people experience the fullness of life and, in Kerouac’s memorable phrase, ‘burn like roman candles across the night’.


And if trends continue, some say, this kind of experience will only become rarer. Many will miss out on the endless possibilities of travel, the freedom of mobility, and the exhilaration of an open, empty road: this, perhaps, is the tragedy of teenagers opting for Facebook over Ford Fiestas.

But are cars really more exciting than any other form of transport? Arguably driving actually limits people’s experience, to a set network of roads and the few people a driver happens to share a car with. The car is nothing special. If it is praised in words and film, that is the triumph of art, not automobiles.

You Decide

  1. How important is owning a car to you?
  2. Is the decline in car use a loss to young people, or a good thing?


  1. Create your own design for a car-free city. People will travel around, get to school and work, shop and visit friends. How might you use technology to help create a liveable environment for people?
  2. Write the opening to your own road novel, set in the 21st century.

Some People Say...

“Cars bring nothing but traffic, pollution and accidents.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t drive. What does it matter if the car is in decline?
If it continues, policy makers and planners are going to have to take notice of the trend. That will have a big impact on things like the layout of towns and cities and how governments and businesses spend their money.
How’s that?
Well it would mean less investment in building roads and more spent on public transport like buses and trains. New developments and city centres might incorporate cycle routes, and walkable layouts, with small shops built close to people’s homes rather than big out-of-town superstores.
Is anyone doing that now?
The town of Groningen, in Holland, is a good example. Years ago, a 16-lane motorway cut through its centre: now, it is a car free zone, where 57% of the population travel by bike.

Word Watch

Ford Model T
The Model T, produced by Henry Ford, was the first mass produced motor car. It was intended to be ‘for the great multitude’; an affordable car that would give freedom and status to normal, middle-class Americans, not just the rich. The pioneering assembly line techniques used to build the car had a profound impact on manufacturing, and made it possible for huge amounts of consumer goods to be produced in the USA during the first half of the 20th Century. In 1918, half the cars in the USA were Model Ts.
Beat Generation
The Beat Generation was a cultural movement of the 1950s and 60s. It rejected mainstream American society, and pursued a rebellious, reckless lifestyle. Its key figures were men like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, who travelled widely, experimenting with drugs, and often behaving recklessly when it came to sex and the law. Their writing, which is often experimental and free-form in style, tries to reflect their unusual experiences, and the philosophical insight they tried to find in them.

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