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This is the second of a series of stories produced in collaboration with NPR on the changing car culture in America.
“A Super Beetle, silver, with red and black racing stripes and a sunroof,” she recently described to me. “A cassette AM/FM in the dash. You really couldn’t tell me much after that.”
My mom grew up in the height of American car culture — a time when the way you expressed who you were was by what you drove. And car themed songs were #1 on Billboard.
“Cars back then meant freedom,” she said. “And being raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the 70s when there weren’t many boundaries on anything, and I really mean NO boundaries as in sex, drugs and rock and roll, that’s where it came from. Cars were the biggest tool you had to exercise your freedom to go.”
Maybe it’s because I’ve never owned one, but to me, cars have always simply been something to get me from point A to B. I take cars for what they are: transportation, and whenever I try to imagine my “dream car,” I draw a blank. Then, I reach for my phone. Because I get my rides through Twitter and Facebook.
Just like my friend Earl Barkley in Atlanta. “I’d wake up say 7:45ish and say, all mad, ‘Oh, I missed the bus, how do I get to school?’“
He used to arrange rides to school using Twitter. “I tweet, ’Can anyone give me a ride to school today? I’ll buy you breakfast.’ I’ve done it with strangers and I’ve done it with friends,” he told me.
This is how my generation gets around. We call it ridesharing.
When I asked Barkley what his parents thought about him doing this, he replied, ”Well, my parents don’t really know.”
Lots of us are using Twitter and Facebook to find rides, and not just to school. Now that it’s summer, we cyber-hitchhike even more, because rides are scarce and parties are plenty. It’s awkward to call a friend and ask for a ride, and half the time, they’ll say, “Sorry, my car is full.” But with Twitter, you just hashtag “AshleysPoolParty” and look for other people heading the same way.
It may sound risky, but many teens stay within their own social circles to find rides and don’t branch out beyond friends of friends when asking on Twitter. For me, I only rideshare with people I know, but to some young people, especially those taking longer trips, stranger danger is less of a concern. Take these Craigslist ads for example:
“Hey my name is Danny. I’m trying to get back home to Eureka. I’m 22. Super friendly. Clean guy. I have money for gas.”
“Hello! I’m looking for a ride to Las Vegas. It’s my best friend’s bachelorette party. I am a college student. 25 years old. Intelligent and energetic. And love to converse.”
“Hey guys. I’m in need of a driving partner for a trip to the West Coast… Two rules for the drive: 1) We take turns filling up the gas tank, 2) Whoever is driving has control of the music.”
“I think the digital connection of young people is key,” said Juliet Schor, a sociology Professor at Boston College. She studies what’s known as the sharing economy. It’s popular among young people.
“Because younger generations grew up sharing things online, sharing files, photos, music, they’re very used to sharing,” Schor added.
The sharing economy got big during the recession, especially among young people. It allows them to use technology to access more goods and services, while also allowing them to share costs. And that technology for me, is what the car was for my mom, a gateway to more freedom.
It’s like my friend Earl Barkley said, “The symbol of freedom isn’t the car anymore. There’s more technology out there that allows me more freedom, and even that technology can connect you to a car.”
According to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, 30 years ago, eight in 10 American 18-year-olds had a driver’s license. Today, it’s six in ten. So it’s not that surprising that on my 16th birthday, I wasn’t rushing to get a license. All I wanted was an iPhone. Professor Schor knows, people my age love being connected.
“One of the important things about driving is that they have to disconnect from their technology. And that’s a negative. So if they could sit in the passenger side [without] getting disconnected from technology that’s going to be a plus,” she said.
To me, another plus is ridesharing represents something much bigger than trying to save money. I see it as evidence that people still depend on each other. My generation shares their cars and apartments the way neighbors used to share cups of sugar. For the system to work, some of us still need our own cars. But until I get my own version of the silver Super Beetle, you can find me on Twitter.