Off-road: Why aren’t young people driving?

There is a reason why there are so few great songs about catching the night bus. Similarly, The Beach Boys classic just doesn’t sound the same with the lyrics: “And she’ll have fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes her Uber away.” I’m not saying there are no good songs about public transport.

The Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” is a fine track but the fact that it is about a man getting beaten senseless may explain why it has not featured heavily in Transport for London’s advertising campaigns. There is also, to be fair, Bad Manners’ very danceable “Night Bus to Dalston”, but the absence of lyrics beyond the song’s title may suggest the group were struggling to capture the journey’s innate poetry. By contrast, rock music is full of songs about cars, and they almost all symbolise some form of freedom, even if it is the freedom to tell Laura you love her.

Bruce Springsteen would still be a great artist even without the internal combustion engine, but his canon would be much depleted. More than moving out, more even than losing your virginity, getting a car was for generations the beginning of life, a definitive step to independence and adulthood. In many cases, getting a car was, in fact, a precondition for losing your virginity, since the girls you wanted to date did not in general look kindly on rounding off the evening waiting for the last train to Colindale.

Perhaps it was a function of where I lived that a car seemed especially necessary but, hell, it was also fun. I still remember the day my best friend arrived with a surprisingly nippy old car and we sped along the North Circular far too fast with the windows down and The Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It” blaring out the speakers. Never before or since has a Vauxhall Viva seemed so cool.

Naturally, therefore, when the spawn turned 17, we braced for the demands for driving lessons and an advance towards some old banger that cost more than our mortgage to insure.

And yet it didn’t happen. It is true that the provisional licences were secured but only so they could get served in pubs. Both are clear they intend to drive at some point but, living either in London or in university accommodation, they simply do not feel a pressing need for a motor.

When lockdown hit, it seemed like the extra unfilled hours offered the perfect moment to take them out for a few basic lessons. This was even truer as my beat-up and soon-to-be-replaced VW was there as a prize for whoever passed their test first. But the long days went by and there was always something better to do, even if that something was actually nothing.

Were this just a tale of the eccentricities of my own offspring I would pay it little heed, but it is clear they are not unusual. The young are not rushing to drive in anything like the numbers they once did. A UK report noted that in the 1990s, 80 per cent of people were driving by age 30 but by 2018 that level was not reached until the age of 45.

The number of driving licences held by those aged between 21 and 29 had fallen by 12 per cent. Among the spawn’s friends, there are some early drivers but a significant minority who are in no rush to learn. Clearly, this is not a universal phenomenon.

Those closer to city centres find it far easier to manage without a car than those in areas with poor public transport. In some cases, this may be down to environmentalism. In others, it is the cost or the increased nuisance of taking your car anywhere.

Ubers, e-bikes and electric scooters all seem more appealing — even more freeing. In the end, the exigencies of life will still get all but the most determined autophobes. But this remains one of the most striking of the emerging generational divides.

It is too much to say the young have turned against the car. But hard though it is to believe, there is a generation coming which thinks there’s more to life than a blaring stereo and a Vauxhall Viva.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at [email protected]

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