Is Driving Going Out of Style in Philly?

In the city of I-95, the Schuylkill Expressway and Parking Wars, could a new generation actually make cars ... obsolete?

THE SOUNDTRACK OF my childhood was really my parents’ soundtrack. Don McLean drove his Chevy to the levee. Janis Joplin prayed for a Benz. Wilson Pickett lusted after Mustang Sally, and the Beach Boys—my dad’s favorite—­drove their 409 and their little deuce coup, and had a lot of fun in a T-Bird. They got around, man.

When I tried to think of car songs popular with my peers, all I could come up with was Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” which came out when I was four and isn’t, ahem, really about cars. I also remember Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Not exactly the anthem of a generation.

Right now, it’s that generation—that is, 25-to-34-year-olds—that’s growing in this city at a rate double that of the national average. My friend Patrick is in that group. He’s 34, and just bought a beautiful old place in West Philly, about 30 minutes away from his job in the ’burbs. He’s an extremely smart guy, a dedicated transit rider, and someone who I think is reflective of still another change, this one emotional, that has us slouching toward The New Tipping Point.

“In a strange way,” he tells me, “I see not having a car as freeing—freedom from having to concentrate on the roads as I go from point A to B, freedom from the frustration of sitting in traffic whittling my life away, freedom from worry that I have to find parking or that it will get broken into. I’m free to spend that mental energy on more productive pursuits.”

Patrick’s freedom is a far cry from the kind the Beach Boys sang about. But then, the Beach Boys didn’t have iPads and iPhones for their commute. They didn’t feel the same desperate need to constantly be doing three things at once, that hallmark of our technological age. In March, the New York Times reported that 46 percent of drivers ages 18 to 24 would choose having Internet access over owning a car.

Center City CEO Paul Levy points out that in 1964, he was filling up his Volkswagen’s tank for $3. Three bucks! That won’t even get you a gallon now. Levy thinks we’re in a moment where saving money is aligning with that set of environmental values the 20- and 30-somethings were raised on. Our car-sharing services are thriving; SEPTA ridership has risen four percent in the past two years, a spike that began before gas prices started shooting up. Transit ridership nationwide is at its second-highest level since the 1950s. Self-interest plays a role in that, and probably technology, too, given that electronic apps have made it easier to know when buses and trains are coming. Even SEPTA has launched a handy app with schedules and routes—although its motto, “We’re getting there,” makes it easy to note how far we still are from universal convenience. But Patrick shines a hopeful light on the whole thing: “Public transit is one of those rare goods that the more it gets used, the better it gets.”

He likes the idea that he plays a small role in a cycle that makes Philly better, “which attracts new residents, which drives a healthier economy, which benefits me in all types of ways.” He’s not the only person I know who thinks riding the El can inherently make the city a better place—he’s just the most articulate.

I think Levy is right on with the sustainability thing, too. We 20-, 30- and early-40-somethings have been hearing about recycling and global warming and our dangerous dependence on oil since the third grade. I think this is why I buy into the idea that a less car-congested Philadelphia—despite the various pains it brings with it—is an inherently good thing.

“It used to have a stigma, not owning a car.” That’s my friend Ashley, 32, and the stigma she’s talking about is lameness. Now, she says, “It seems like saying you don’t own a car has the opposite sort of effect. It’s sort of … cool, in its way.” It’s like the renewed dedication among moms I know to using cloth diapers, or the designer clothespins you can buy on Etsy for air-drying your laundry, or the jam-canning craze. This generation seems to see a renewed chic in the pre-industrial. And it’s also what Levy was saying, that doing things like this somehow feels virtuous. Even in our disillusioned, $5-a-gallon, post-“American Pie” world, virtuous is still appealing.