The national push for a car-lite Singapore (to reclaim streets for sustainable uses) must contend with the desire for cars harboured by nearly two-thirds of young people. That was revealed by a Sunday Times survey which also laid bare their primary motivation. Almost all did not view the car as a status symbol, perhaps because rising car ownership has reduced its value as an indicator of social mobility. Instead, cars are preferred for urban mobility. Those interviewed cited convenience and family needs as among the main reasons for wanting to own expensive cars here.
The survey's findings make sobering reading against the backdrop of consumer sentiments among the young elsewhere. In the United States, millennials - the generation born from about 1980 to 2004 - accounted for 27 per cent of new car sales in 2014, up from 18 per cent in 2010. One observer viewed this as the "fierce undertow" of a habitual status quo that makes young people want to buy cars. In Germany, owning a car is still the first choice for 85 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds. In China, which overtook the US to become the largest car market in the world in 2009, young drivers between the ages of 18 and 29 are the fastest-growing group of car owners, according to a report last year.
In Australia, however, a growing number "see the car more as a burden than a liberation", in the words of a commentator, with the younger generation leading the way. Car sharing has shifted thinking about cars, from being objects of desire to a utility to be used only when necessary. So, what would it take to nudge young Singaporeans to lead others away from an obsession with cars?
It would help, of course, if parents and educators determinedly instil in the young the right values to make them instinctively care more for their immediate environment and the planet than for their own creature comforts. But such lessons are imparted more effectively when these adults are not avid car owners themselves.
From a practical point of view, it would help if vast networks of roads are not kept exclusively for cars and other motor vehicles. Further, there must be alternative forms of mobility to divert the young away from privately owned cars. This calls for the expansion of the train system, reliable rail operators, well-run bus services, more covered walkways (to ease the journey to train stations and bus stops) and well-connected cycling paths. What would undermine the car-lite push is the grudging acceptance of those who view it as a form of lifestyle downgrading. Instead, the young and others should voluntarily accept multiple modes of travel as the natural dispensation for city-states that are committed to an ecologically sustainable future. When public transport becomes desirable and streets are equitably shared, a lust for cars might then become passe.