Over and over, it's the same thing: Millennials are moving to cities. Millennials hate driving places. Millenials don't want to buy cars. Thus, millennials will put car companies out of business.
Believe me, as a millennial (and just like you, I also think the term is lazy and pejorative and should be immediately banned to wherever Merriam-Webster confines such words to a lifetime of obsolescence), I hate every single one of these stories. As someone who spends a great deal of time in scrums, roundtables and other events with top-level auto execs, nothing irks the soul more than when said execs are presenting something about the global commercial van market or whatever, and a boomer-age auto writer sucks up precious Q&A time openly wondering why they haven't built some autonomous B-segment econohybrid that'll make it easier for their teenage daughter to check Facebook and drive.
And as more people buy cars, the industry can hire more people to make them. Here's where we start thinking about Detroit, and where I'm fearful there will be a future conflict.
Outside Detroit you read all the car-hating stories, but locally, there has been an uptick of chatter about walkable neighborhoods (note the obvious emphasis), better road usage, bike lanes and, the biggie, regional public transportation infrastructure.
In Detroit, each of these issues are directly tied to population growth and income generation. Taxes from a higher population, for example, are partially needed to subsidize regional transportation. You need lots of people, which Detroit does not have at the moment, to even ride on whatever modes of transportation are offered.
What also connects each of those issues is a prediction that future urbanites — all the people moving to Detroit in the next few years — will not need a car to make it day to day. Consider one of the main arguments against widening I-94: People are buying fewer cars, so why do we need to make the freeway bigger anyway?
Go back, then, to population growth: How is population growing in Detroit? More companies are moving downtown and Midtown. Who's moving people here? Largely, the auto industry; look at General Motors' RenCen headquarters, or Chrysler trickling in a few employees to the newly christened Chrysler House.
And it's not just the auto industry, but the residual workers who depend on it. Campbell-Ewald is moving its ad agency employees from the suburbs to downtown. As the New York Times reports, hundreds of third-party tech employees and app developers are needed — many of whom, I suspect, will be flowing through the channels of CCS, Wayne State, TechTown or whatever incubator Gilbert is running lately.
Here lies our paradox: If the auto industry is booming and providing jobs, which in turn makes for new residents, is it sacrilege to support that industry when trends favor not owning a car at all? It's possible that only in Detroit, where the auto industry is our lifeblood, can this question be asked.
A sudden uptick in vegetarianism won't kill the seafood industry in Baltimore, and switching to tea won't keep city councilmen from coffeeshops in Seattle. But if more people nationwide — maybe worldwide — stop driving, well, that could be the swan song for Detroit.
Let's say 30 years from now people trade in their Chevy Sparks for Shinola bikes. What would happen to the investments that GM made in the city? Would another bankruptcy — layoffs, ripple effects, unemployment, disaster that keeps snowballing, documentaries about all of the above — be possible as a result?
Note that I'm not rah-rah cheering for the auto industry (though as it stands, my career depends on its long-term survival). I just wonder if we're going to have a some friction down the line as the way we commute across the region changes. I don't have a crystal ball, so I don't know which side will have to give the greatest compromise. But something will have to give.
[Photo via AP]