By Tim Grzesiakowski

In a time of economic uncertainty, record student loan debt, and an environmentally concerned public, the younger generation of consumers is bucking the trend of car-ownership that has been seen historically as a sign of success. According to the car shopping web site Edmunds.com, the share of new cars purchased by those aged 18-34 dropped thirty percent in the last five years. A recent Deloitte study adds that 46 percent of 18-24 year olds would choose internet access over a car.

In concurrence with the Deloitte study, CNN Money’s Steve Hargreaves says that it is the rapid evolution of social media that pushes younger consumers away from owning a car. “The ability to meet and interact with people on the Internet is largely replacing the need to hop in a car and cruise down the strip,” he claims. Hargreaves also points out that later ages for licenses and restrictions on cell phone use all change cars from what they used to represent into what they now take away: freedom.

Many car companies, though, believe that it is the recession and not a cultural shift that has kept younger consumers away from car dealerships. John McFarland, GM’s manager of global strategic marketing, says “I don’t believe that young buyers don’t care about owning a car. We just think nobody truly understands them yet.”  Erich Merkle, a U.S. sales analyst at Ford, believes that “they (Generation Y-ers) will have families, move to the suburbs, and need vehicles. They are going to be around for a long time and they are going to purchase many, many new cars.”

The biggest factor driving this trend, though, may simply be how much easier now than ever it is to live without a car. According to the website of IGO, a car sharing service based here in Chicago with over 20,000 members, car share users drive an average of 500 miles per year. In comparison, the average Chicago vehicle owner logs approximately 10,000 miles per year. In Chicago traffic, this difference adds up to huge monetary savings, large reductions in CO2 emissions (each IGO vehicle replaces as many as 17 private vehicles), and an enormous amount of reduced stress. In addition to the rise in car sharing, Chicago is making it easier to get around in other ways, from adding bus rapid transit to improving bike infrastructure (such as the new protected bike lane on Dearborn). For travel outside the city, more and more people are taking advantage of inter-city rail travel, allowing travelers to avoid high fuel costs and enjoy a more relaxed trip. All of this means that those without cars don’t suffer like they did 20 or even 10 years ago.

The longer that young people go without cars, the easier that it becomes to go without one. While car dealerships may not find this ideal, more and more young people are finding that living a car-free lifestyle in an increasingly car-free city is just fine with them.

MPC Research Assistant Kyle Terry authored this post.