I donated my car to charity three years ago and haven’t looked back.

I live a few blocks from downtown Honolulu, and I commute by walking. When it’s time for class at the University of Hawaii, I take the No. 4 bus to Manoa. When I want to visit a coffee shop in Kakaako, I ride my bicycle. If I am in a hurry or need to make a longer journey, I take an Uber.

Like many other millennials, I don’t own a car. There are multiple reasons for this, but two stand out: I don’t need one, and I can’t afford one.

Traffic along Beretania Street near Punchbowl Street2.
Young people are increasingly looking to avoid scenes like this at Beretania and Punchbowl streets in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

My American dream has never included a personal automobile. I grew up in an urban area, and everything I could possibly need is accessible via public transportation.

If I need food, I can walk to a restaurant or grocery store. When it’s time for work, I can walk into the central business district. If I need some time in nature, buses will take me to the beach or the mountains.

Entertainment? With a short bike ride to Chinatown or Kakaako – or a slightly longer ride to Waikiki – I can share a drink with friends or catch a concert.

Though I previously owned a car, I know some millennials who don’t even have driver’s licenses. A few have never driven a car. This may be unthinkable for baby boomers, but it is becoming more common as younger generations decide where they want to live.

Most millennials prefer to live in cities. They’d rather fit into cramped apartments than stretch out in palatial suburban homes. They choose to wait for buses and subway trains instead of sitting behind the wheel in traffic.

There are other cultural reasons millennials don’t need cars. Because they’re postponing marriage and childbearing, they don’t need to drive the family around. But even when millennials feel like they need a car, they might not be able to afford one.

A Costly Luxury

Personally, I’ve saved a lot of money since shedding my car.

I spent more on car insurance in a month than I spend on the annual maintenance of my bicycle. And that doesn’t account for the frequent repairs my old Volvo needed. Factoring in gas and registration fees, it’s no wonder that cars aren’t a priority for me and my peers.

In large, congested cities like New York and San Francisco, car ownership is already a luxury. As the cost of living in Honolulu rises, cars are put farther out of reach of the young.

Many millennials are bogged down by student debt and not keen on paying for insurance or taking on monthly car payments.

A hundred years from now, we might look back on the personal automobile as quaint, the same way we look at fountain pens.

For city dwellers, it’s much cheaper to commute by public transportation and use ride-sharing only when necessary.

Cultural and economic shifts like these may permanently change the way we relate to driving. Cars won’t go away, but personal ownership might.

The personal automobile may be a historical anomaly. The Ford Model T started production in 1908, just over a century ago. Before that, the American middle-class could not afford automobiles.

In the 20th century, car ownership was woven into the American dream. Strong majorities also own cars in Western Europe and developed Asian countries like South Korea and Japan, but globally, only a third of households own cars. Bicycles remain the most common means of transport worldwide. In many Southeast Asian countries, people prefer motorbikes and scooters to cars.

These countries leapfrogged American urban design. Rather than ringing their urban cores with suburbs and requiring commute by automobile, they built public transportation into their cities as they expanded. Their residents never needed cars. Soon, Americans may not need them either.

The Times Are Changing

More than a century after the first mass production automobile, we may be experiencing the permanent decline of personal automobile ownership in the United States.

When the Model T hit production lines, only half of the American population lived in urban areas. Today, the share of the population in urban and suburban areas has grown to more than 80%.

Suburban areas were made possible by the personal automobile, and it will be interesting to see how they are re-fashioned as millennials age.

I believe most of them will settle in urban cores. Some will eventually move to the suburbs to raise families, but they will retain their desire for public transportation and walkable spaces. They won’t want to spend hours behind the wheel commuting every day. They’ll find better ways to move.

If techno-utopians have their way, we’ll commute by putting on our virtual reality goggles. Or Elon Musk will win and we’ll hop into hyperloop pods. Probably, we’ll use a combination of public transportation and ride-sharing, with autonomous vehicles thrown into the mix.

A hundred years from now, we might look back on the personal automobile as quaint, the same way we look at fountain pens. A few aficionados will treasure their vintage Honda Civics the way collectors exhibit their Waterman 52s.

Others will laugh at the old fogies, riding their self-driving cars into the sunset.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.