AdAge and The Decline In Car Driving Among The Young

The advertising industry’s most important publication, Ad Age, recently posted an article entitled “Is Digital Revolution Driving Decline in U.S. Car Culture?” wherein the author describes the decline in driving among the young, and the readership leaves comment after comment positing reasons for the change, most of which belie political sentiments.

This kind of economic commentary can be found daily on any economics blog. And it’s fascinating to see the difference between the interpretations of different subcultures of the same data. Economists make fewer errors in their reasoning. Reporters try to create sensationalism and readership by appealing to the common errors that people tend to make, most importantly the error of confirmation bias : seeking what you agree with and ignoring what you don’t.

Humans demonstrate a cognitive bias wherein they overestimate their own ‘normalcy’, or how likely people are to think like them. This is particularly true of people in the agency business for a variety of reasons – and thinking otherwise might not necessarily be beneficial to one’s career in the agency business. This business is a ‘magnet’ for group-thinkers, because the profession requires that you think about ‘groups’ for a living.


Most people in history were confined to 20 mile arduous around their home. Cities are, and always have been, notoriously dirty and noisy, often crime ridden, and push people into small spaces from which they desire ‘vacations’. (The Un-Heavenly City by Banfield.) In a recent conversation I had with a Chinese intellectual I was surprised at how little he understood the ‘toxicity’ of human beings living in density. It’s hard on them. (Selection in urban environments comes from disease resistance. – Plagues and Peoples by McNeil) People like density because it decreases opportunity costs – everything is close-by and because it’s dense, businesses and services are better capitalized and better funded because they have a higher opportunity of being funded – as long as they don’t require much space, or as long as what they sell is expensive enough to pay the cost of that density. But because of the expense of that proximity, raising children is for the poor who have no other choice but to live in kennels where the cost per human is low, and the wealthy who can afford to make the choice, not the middle class, who must live elsewhere. Therefore, Cars and Suburbia Are Synonymous. Because costs of a the quality of residences decrease with distance from urban centers, allowing more space at lower cost. Most urban downtown cores are surrounded by slums. Paris, Vienna, NY, Chicago and most impressively LA. Most dense urban areas outside of the west are almost entirely slums. London seems to have done a better job of controlling it’s development than most other cities.

The reason for this is simply a tragedy of the commons that occurs when people move into very high density. It’s fixable with serious political effort, but there is a high cost of projecting that effort.


People drive cars because
1) Increasing opportunities for experience (we all this ‘the sense of freedom’)
2) Increased opportunities for mating outside of one’s group (this is obvious)
3) Permitting distance between home and job once jobs industrialized
4) Permitting the easy transpiration of ‘stuff’ to one’s residence
5) Ease of childrearing, especially once women enter the work force.
6) Increasing Leisure Time not spent traveling.
7) Status – because status will always be with us, because it determines access to mates, jobs, opportunities, knowledge and experiences, and because people are imitative and need a way of knowing what to imitate in order to get attention, opportunities, and mates.


The actual reasons for the shift In Driving:
1) Cheap credit inflated residential prices, mortgages and rents. Wages were stickier, so young people whose primary social function is mate-seeking chose urban locations in exchange for car ownership and geographic freedom. This phenomenon will change once they find mates and seek suburban life for their children, as well as increase their household incomes by marring. So in other words, preferences will not change, just demographic distributions. (Just like political preferences.)
2) Unemployment over the past two years has decreased the tolerance for high fixed costs and younger people are abandoning or delaying the luxury of driving. They are just delaying it, and will reverse it when possible.
3) It’s a lot less ‘boring’ to stay at home when you have so many forms of entertainment available.
4) People live in increasing density, so that the need to travel in order to ‘sample’ enough people to identify friends and potential mates is lower, and to some degree is simply easier on the web.
5) Increased Populations Of Immigrant Urban Poor and their children who are most likely to consume public services, and least likely to have risk capital available for automobiles.

These aren’t in any order, but I’ll leave it to the reader to determine the impact of adding 30M people over a 20 year period.


Public transportation has a statistically insignificant to statistically minor impact on commuting everywhere except New York City. In fact, NYC is so dominant, that it skews the entire country. If you remove NYC from the analysis then the dominance of car culture is obvious. By contrast, many rail systems (Portland Oregon for example) are catastrophic losses, and suffer from insufficient ridership to cover the costs. In europe people do not own homes, they rent and save. National cultures are also more homogenous. People are gregarious in homogenous societies and isolationist in heterogeneous societies. Contrary to what is commonly believed. Diversity decreases willingness for public investment. Everywhere.

in general, if a people can afford the independence of a car, in any culture, they adopt it. That is what the statistics illustrate, and there is no evidence that that preference will change unless the cost of urban homes decreases per square foot and the cost of personal transpiration increases dramatically.

Why? Because at any point, either TIME or MONEY is more important. At the point where time is more scarce than money, a car becomes your preferred method of transport. At the point where you have a family and must transport them, and STUFF a car becomes your preferred method of transport. No matter what your income bracket.

People do not change their lifestyle, political or class biases, except that they become more conservative as they age. There is no shift going on that is not purely economic and demographic in origins.

Agencies who are supposed to promote goods and services can only create loyalty inducing narratives for people if they understand why people make decisions. And bringing your biases to the table only makes it increasingly difficult to create messages and campaigns that resonate with consumers – because consumers increasingly resonate with the truth.

Good advertising is the truth spoken succinctly and creatively.

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