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Who cars anymore?

Some Chicago drivers kissing their cars goodbye

  • Aaron Wilson, 24, of Logan Square
Aaron Wilson, 24, of Logan Square (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
July 31, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, RedEye

When Aaron Wilson moved from car-crazed California to commuter-friendly Chicago to attend the University of Chicago, he traded his driver's license for an Illinois state ID.

"I can get everywhere I need to go either by public transportation or on my bike," said Wilson, now 24, a research assistant who lives in Logan Square. "It's really expensive to have a car. It's something I can afford, but it would limit my ability to have a nicer apartment or not spend as much on food."

Once you factor in gas, maintenance, insurance and other fees, it can cost anywhere from $5,700 to $9,800 a year to own and drive a car 10,000 miles, depending on its size, according to AAA's national estimates.

In Chicago, drivers have to contend with higher gas prices, city stickers, parking meters and tolls. Don't forget traffic congestion, the struggle to find parking, and the constant threat of tickets. It all can be a headache for some drivers.

Is the flexibility that a car offers really worth it?

Maybe not, according to a recent report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and the Frontier Group environmental think tank. Drivers ages 16 to 34 are driving less, as shown by a 23 percent drop in the annual number of vehicle-miles traveled from 2001 to 2009. At the same time, they are biking, walking and taking public transportation more often. Fewer Millennials had their driver's licenses in 2010 than did in 2000, according to the report.

"The trend away from driving is dramatic, and it's even more dramatic when you consider that trend is driven by young people," said Brian Imus, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group.

Getting a license at age 16 used to be considered a rite of passage. Not for Alexandra Hill, 22, who lives in Andersonville.

She took the driver's ed classroom instruction but didn't feel like doing the behind-the-wheel driving at another school or privately since it wasn't offered at her school. By the time she turned 18, she said, she felt like she never needed a license.

"For the most part, I've been able to carpool with people easily or take my bike and public transportation," Hill said. She took the train or bus or caught rides with friends to get home from college in Champaign.

There's no denying a walkable and bike-friendly city like Chicago makes it easier to get around without a car. The CTA is accessible, and a selection of mobile apps make it more convenient with bus and train trackers.

Chicagoans who switch from driving an average of 15,000 miles a year to riding public transportation can save $11,700 a year, according to the American Public Transportation Association, which uses a calculation that includes a monthly transit pass, monthly unreserved parking space downtown and the AAA cost-of-driving formula.

Geoff Dacanay, 34, a legal specialist who lives in Bucktown, thought it'd be hard to give up his car. He now saves $200 a month on insurance, gas and other costs since selling his Mazda3 in December.

"It takes a little bit more planning to do things," he said, but "in the end, it's freeing."

Dacanay rides the CTA to get to his West Loop office and admits he is dependent on a train schedule if he ventures to the 'burbs.

"I'm pretty happy about it. ... I don't foresee any time in the near future that I would have to get another car," Dacanay said.

Automakers are attempting to change the minds of young drivers like Dacanay and entice young buyers by creating fuel-efficient, tech-savvy compact vehicles "designed for urban environments," the Chicago Automobile Trade Association said in a statement. The association's Chicago Auto Show saw more than 20 percent of its attendees this year between the ages 18 to 24.

However, a variety of factors including high gas prices, maddening traffic gridlock and an uncertain economy are driving people to re-think their vehicle use, said Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois Chicago.

"I'm encouraged," he said. "I think it's a good thing that the report has found an indication that there is a shift in attitude among young people to support alternative forms of transportation. The congestion situation has shown it's beyond our ability to manage."

The allure of cruising the open roads has faded, Imus said. "The new generation today learning to drive – they're dealing with congestion and high gas prices and a lot of young people would rather be on mobile phones texting than driving. All this is leading younger people to drive less," he said. "The open road doesn't really exist anymore because we're all stuck in traffic."

lvivanco@tribune.com | @lvivanco

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