Whenever I'm hanging out with friends from out of state and I pull out my New York state ID, there's always a bit of confusion: "What is that? Is it like a driver's license? Is that valid? Can you fly with that? Why don't you just get a real license?" And I have to give the same list of explanations: It's just a good as a driver's license for ID, since I have to provide the same level of documentation to the DMV to get one. I can use it to fly and get into bars. And, well, I don't have a driver's license because ... I don't know how to drive. I've never needed to. And, as I approach my fourth decade on this earth, I might never need to, because the world is increasingly made for people like me.
Usually the next line I hear is: "I guess it doesn't really matter because you live in New York." It is true that the city has some of the best transportation in the world, with a 24-hour subway system that reaches four boroughs, and buses to fill all the gaps in between. And for those times when New York's MTA can't quite cut it, there's a plethora of for-hire cars roaming the streets, which have only gotten easier to hail thanks to apps like Uber, Lyft and Curb. We also have bike sharing now. And Car2Go. And when we can, we walk.
It's easy to dismiss New York as an exception. Ditto for San Francisco. Except that they're not. Public-transportation use is up across the United States in cities as disparate as Albany, Minneapolis, Tampa and even Wenatchee, Washington. In 2014, the American Public Transportation Association reported 10.8 billion trips taken -- the highest number in 58 years. That number is only set to grow even further as cities gain new residents -- eight of the 10 largest gains were cities in Texas like San Antonio and Houston.
However, car culture isn't going away anytime soon in the US. Though people seem to be buying fewer passenger vehicles and sales might be leveling off, sales of trucks and other more commercial autos are still going strong -- probably because these aren't as easily eschewed or replaced. We're still big on cars, and government policy isn't looking likely to change any time soon: The federal budget proposed last week cuts transportation funding 20 percent, putting projects like Seattle's light-rail extension and San Francisco's new Transbay crossing at risk.
We may never fully get around to building the infrastructure needed to create a carless or even car-light society. We heavily invested in building out the highway system back in the '30s at the expense of public transit -- you might remember the conspiracy to dismantle L.A.'s streetcar system as a plot point in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? -- but it's something that actually happened to some extent.
The attachment to cars in this country makes sense when you consider that one of the most common jobs in more than 20 states is truck driver; it's not a career that can be exported to another country like so many manufacturing positions. We've come to romanticize the idea of just hopping in our own personal vehicle and going where the highway leads. Final Fantasy XV even based its story around a group of boys on a road trip.
There's also a certain level of invisibility for car-free people: For starters, they tend to be from a lower income bracket -- a study from 2007 shows them averaging $39,000 per year vs. $44,000 for the general population. That difference partially explains why so many struggling millennials have forgone the idea.
Age and income combine to make transit users politically weaker than their car-using counterparts, meaning that politicians tend to be averse to improving our infrastructure: It's a lot of money spent on something that is unlikely to benefit most of their base. At least until that base gets too old to drive: Senior citizens make up about 2.2 percent of transit users, and with baby boomers reaching retirement age, that number will only grow.
With so many people besides me leaning away from car use, then, how is that car culture adapting? Well, it depends on where you live. For many cities, it's as simple as adding more service to an existing transit system. Some have taken the step of expanding their train lines, like the Silver Line in D.C., or the Second Avenue Subway in New York. A few towns, like Brunswick in Maine, are experimenting with public transit for the first time. But they aren't expanding as quickly as demand, mostly because it's tough to get the budget and contracts in place quickly.
For years public services have been supplemented with things like New York's dollar vans, where private drivers hustle for fares as part of an informal shadow system. But now the tech sector is stepping in, aiming to disrupt transportation and make a little cash in the process.
In addition to the ride-hailing apps mentioned above, there's even a service, Skedaddle, that lets you book entire buses. Companies have taken shots at running their own transit lines as well, like Leap and Chariot. These haven't entirely taken off -- partially because they're being done in cities that already have robust, functional systems the services are competing with (they barely even touch New York because it would fail super-hard). But when they fill a real gap, they can be successful; as much as we love to hate them, the tech buses of Silicon Valley are an example of private industry stepping up where public systems falter.
The transportation revolution is coming as devices too. Last month I previewed a robot intended for carrying cargo, which could help people shop and companies make deliveries, taking vehicles off the road. But perhaps the biggest disruptor is the advent of driverless vehicles. They're being tested now, with a relatively low rate of accidents (and presumably less as these vehicles increase and can communicate with each other). It's a scary future if you depend on truck driving for your livelihood. But if you or your loved ones have ever been in a crash, it's a godsend. And for people like me who don't know how to drive, it's a portent that I may never have to.
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Images: Getty (Crosswalk); Getty (Truck); Richard Levine/Getty Images (Subway); Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images (Bus)