I recently moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, a sprawling, automobile obsessed city, despite some seemingly serious attempts to install light rail transit and pedestrian greenways. I’m thrilled with the opportunity to teach urban planning at UNC Charlotte, but less than thrilled that commuting to work will require sitting in traffic 30 minutes each way.
So it was with some irony that I listened to a public radio segment this morning highlighting an apparent generational shift in the symbolic importance of automobiles. A recent study published by researchers at the University of Michigan reveals that teenagers are less and less likely to possess a drivers' license: In the 1970s, eight out of ten American teens had a drivers’ license; today only six out of ten American teens have one.
This trend may have something to do with a larger shift in attitudes about driving and vehicle ownership. In the middle twentieth century, access to a car was a highly symbolic rite of passage, and practical freedom from parental control! Even at the cusp of the millennium (when this author turned 16), access to my father’s old Buick Riviera was essential my and my friends’ social life. Apparently in the last decade, the symbolic importance of individual car ownership has begun to diminish as young people use social media to access transportation alternatives, namely free or cheap rides from friends, friends of friends, and the general twitterverse. Additionally, teens are so interested in "staying connected" that they'd rather sit in a passenger seat and tweet than focus on the road.
According to blogger Michael Hyatt, social media is allowing a more democratic exchange of information, facilitating an emerging “culture of sharing.” While some indict social media as ego-centric, Hyatt explains that social media, encourages individuals to share recommendations, expertise, contacts, and empathy. This cultural shift has the potential to unlock some important opportunities for urban sustainability planning.
My research focuses on social strategies for reducing energy and resource consumption, specifically strategies employed in ecovillages—grassroots communities dedicated to low impact lifestyles. I’ve found that the individuals in ecovillages are able to live at much lower levels of consumption (as low as 10 percent the average American) as a result of an investment in cooperative and communicative skills that make sharing capital resources much easier. I am convinced that such cooperation will be imperative to meeting basic public services and metabolics, as natural resource stocks reach their “peak” levels and the consequences of super-consumption grow increasingly difficult to ignore.
Individuals in ecovillages invest weekend after weekend to non-violent communication and consensus governance skills. These skills facilitate the sharing of cars, recreational space, toilets, appliances, and energy production infrastructure that most Americans are either reluctant to share or outsource to public utilities. These skills are not natural. They are learned and very deliberately applied.
But what if a “culture of sharing” eliminated the need to invest in such skills? If it is truly a cultural shift, as commentators allege, and this shift enhances empathy and willingness to share, then might cooperative housing and ecovillage-style living come more naturally to the next generation of adults? And if so, could this cultural shift (socio-technical landscape pressure) ease the regulatory and financial changes necessary for low-energy housing production?
Would love your thoughts.