“I feel a lot of confidence in the next generation” Will young people abandon cars?

Claudia Dalby speaks to experts and young people on the future of driving in Ireland

Young people’s vocal concerns with climate change has potential for huge cultural shifts in car use. Not only are global temperatures rising, but so are car insurance prices, rent and mortgage costs and congestion levels, a concoction that the car may not survive.

Statistically, there has been a drop in the percentage of the population who are drivers, and while cars still dominate as the most popular form of transport, the average distance travelled by cars has reduced to 14.6km from 15.3km in 2013.

Speaking to the University Observer, transport and urban design expert Dr Sarah Rock believes there is “lots of indication that we’ve reached peak car in the western world. People are not owning as many cars as they used to and not travelling as far, they’re not getting licences as quickly as previous generations and transferring to other modes of transport. In particular, countries that have put infrastructure into public transport show strong trends for younger cohorts of users.”

Dr Rock cites reductions in home ownership, city lifestyles and changing value systems as reasons why young people are less likely to own cars. “Young people today do not have the resources that were available to their counterparts almost two decades ago in 2004, when car ownership was at its peak.”

Ireland has not invested like other countries in public transport, but “when they do eventually invest, we should see huge changes.”

Solutions should be driven by a combination of incentives towards alternatives, and deterrents to driving cars. “It has the potential to change with a single generation.” Dr Rock cites the example of Copenhagen, which made policy changes that prioritised sustainable transport and now is one of the best examples of sustainable cities.

“So many cities were in our position, they just went down a different policy route than us.

We think it is irreversible, but it’s not. Things can change so quickly, and the window of opportunity is right now. I think young people want to see change as it will make lives better - there is evidence of this. I feel a lot of confidence in the next generation.”

In response to questions about reducing car usage in Ireland, Green Party MEP Ciaran Cuffe believes we need to provide improvements in public transport and ‘active travel’. “Looking ahead to future development we need to encourage people to live in our towns and villages so that they are not dependent on the car for everyday life.

Real improvements in public transport means more buses and cheaper fares, and implementing the 'Bus Connects' Plan in Dublin. We need to consider light rail for Cork and Galway, and improve rail and bus services elsewhere.”

According to the 2018 National Transport survey, “the national view of travel habits is one that is dominated by car usage. 71% of all trips are taken by car.” In 2006, the same report states just over three in every five respondents (62%) used a car as their main mode of transport (51% as a car driver and 11% as a car passenger).

University Observer heard from a number of young people aged between 12 and 25 to hear their views on the future of car use. Many see driving as a valuable skill, but badly wish there were other options.

Katie McCorley (17), secondary school student, Athlone Co. Westmeath

I do intend on learning to drive when I’m older but that’s only because I live in the countryside and the public transport just doesn’t exist. If I lived in Dublin or in any city that had decent public transport then I wouldn’t bother learning to drive. I’m aware that it’s bad for the environment. [If I’m in a city] for college I don’t think I’ll own a car, but for 6th year and if I go to college in Athlone then I’ll really need to drive because I won’t have any other option.

I want just better public transport in general. For me it would take me around 40 minutes to walk to my nearest bus stop and the bus doesn’t even run that regularly. Public transport is also quite expensive to use regularly which is so unfortunate because I would 100% use it all the time if it was cheaper or just more available.

Driving is a necessity for me because I have nothing else apart from my parents

Kevin Fitzpatrick (24), junior barrister, Co. Dublin

I have to drive back and forth from Rathmines to courtrooms in the east and south of the country. The trains and buses are too slow, expensive and unreliable, and don’t drop me near enough work to get there on time. When I’m home, I try to walk in Dublin as much as I can.

Adam Boland, (23), masters student, Co. Dublin

As someone who spends most of their time thinking about climate change, it seems crazy to me that there are any young people at all still learning to drive. Driving is an indescribably inefficient way of getting around.

I made the decision not to learn to drive because all the evidence is telling us that there is no place for cars in the future. I think all young people should boycott cars for the simple reason that they are incompatible with a safe and healthy future.

Tara Hanneffy (23), supervisor, Emo Co. Laois

Where I live isn’t too rural, but my job is about ten kilometres away, and we do not have any reliable or regular public transport systems between the country and towns. Although I think that strategies to lower car use would ultimately be very beneficial for the environment and for people’s pockets, this is currently nothing more than a pipe dream for rural areas.

Until access to public transport in rural areas is improved, I have no other option but to drive. I have considered cycling but that would be 20km cycling a day, and I have to stand for 4-8 hours in work, and the roads are pretty dangerous in the country, so cycling isn’t really a reliable or viable option. Without a car, I could not go to work, access shops or have a social life

Sarah Ni Chiarian (21), undergraduate student, Drogheda Co. Laois

I am learning to drive at the moment. I put it off purely out of laziness, not environmental reasons. I am unsure about how much driving I actually will do when I get the license. I did an ‘energy in transport’ module this year , which taught us about the environmental impact of driving. [We learned that] keeping occupancy levels high is a great way to lower GHG emissions. So I only want to drive if I'm driving a full car.

I think our generation within the city will be more inclined to use public transport,cycle or walk in the future because it is easier to do now. But as well as that, people always drive for visiting, shopping and hobbies no matter the economic climate. There is no other method of transport that is as easy as driving that allows you to pop to the shops or visit a friend. 

I would hope that cars in the future will be less environmentally detrimental. But at the end of it all, I'm probably not going to choose the environmentally friendly option if it is expensive or difficult to use.

Sarah Conway (12), secondary school student, Co. Dublin

I probably wouldn’t learn to drive right away. Driving is making climate change worse, with all the gases going into the environment. I think there will definitely be a change because people want to save the earth.

Cian Rynne (25), PhD student, Co. Dublin

Driving is still a useful skill and lots of job apps require it. I think financial is the main reason I don’t have a car. I’ve got the license but I simply can’t afford to drive and have savings as well. I could drive to work, but I live a 20 minute walk away. I would use it to go grocery shopping and maybe see some more of the surrounding region that isn’t so easily accessed outside of public transport. This is hardly enough justification for owning one though, plus my housemate and my girlfriend each have one, so I have access to cars without owning one myself. So I am not bound by necessity to have one, and with the financial side and environmental considerations as well, I have the luxury of not having to have one, which is nice.

Adam McCade (22), undergraduate student, Co. Dublin

I don't even have my license yet but if or when I decide to get a car, my main considerations will be the cost and time benefits of driving vs commuting on public transport. I prefer public transport for almost every trip because it reduces traffic congestion and leaves me free to do my own thing instead of having to concentrate on driving.

Talking about climate change, when I think about the impact of a long haul flight, I do feel guilty - but I can't imagine ever deciding not to travel because of that guilt. And since the miles I would build up from driving would be far less than flying, it would be sort of nonsensical to focus on driving. I guess I should add that I'm still in favour of policies that tax carbon-intensive behaviour, and am looking forward to the time when Teslas are affordable for most people.