How Millennials will change the way America drives

February 16, 2016
Elena Krotova

Based on numerous research studies, survey results, and government data young people drive fewer miles than their parents did. Teenagers no longer rush to get a driver’s license, leaving America’s policymakers and transportation experts to wonder if this behavior is a temporary trend or the changes are here to stay.

For most modern US history, the number of miles driven by Americans kept steadily increasing year after year. Right until 2007, when driving went into decline, with young people driving significantly less. The interesting fact is that the number of miles driven went up in 2014 again.

Therefore, a few questions arise:

Was this just a temporary decline caused by the recession and high gas prices that left everyone, and especially the young, cash-strapped? Or was there actually a shift in preference for driving? Are the Millennials’ preferences for driving will stay the same or will they shift as generation Y gets older?

The world experienced by young people has changed dramatically in the last decade. There are a number of reasons why young people have been giving up driving – high gas prices that prevailed in the last few years, new licensing laws that made obtaining a license more complicated, improvements in technology that support alternative means of transportation, the recession that damaged short- and long-term economic prospects of the young generation, and changes in Millennials values and preferences.

Various surveys have shown that Millennials are different from the previous generations in several ways:

– Young people drove fewer miles: from 2001 to 2009 number of vehicle miles traveled by 16-34-year-olds decreased from 10,300 to 7,900 per capita – a drop of 23 percent.

– Car trips were replaced with more trips by bike, public transportation, and foot.

– Young people are less likely to get drivers’ licenses than the previous generations. Only 70 percent of 19-year-olds had them in 2010, compared with 87 percent in 1983.

– Young people aged 20 to 30 are less likely to move from central cities to suburbs than a decade ago.


What are the reasons behind Millennials’ mobility choices and transportation decisions?

Socioeconomic Changes

The 2007-2009 recession was the defining economic event in the lives of the Millennials generation contributing to high youth unemployment. Hence, financial strain made vehicle ownership unaffordable for many young people. Although America’s economy finally appears to be improving that doesn’t necessarily mean Millennials will change their driving habits. Some observers say that the drop in driving may only be temporary and it might simply be related to not having a job that one has to drive to every day. If that’s true then driving could rebound again as the economy grows.

According to a 2014 J.D.Powers and Associates report, Millennials accounted for 27 percent of new car sales in the United States, up from 18 percent in 2010. On the other hand, a 2014 survey conducted by the Global Strategy Group showed that almost two-thirds (67 percent) of Millennials still say that the expense of owning a car is the major reason they want to be less reliant on one, including 77 percent of Millennials who earn less than $30,000 a year.

A closer look at the Millennials’ driving choices shows that although the Great Recession played a significant role in the decline in driving over the last decade, it’s far from the only cause. There are some reasons to believe that young people today might have different priorities than their predecessors. Moreover, the decline in driving among both employed and unemployed young people coupled with the fact that per-capita driving in the U.S. as a whole began to fall in 2004, well before the onset of the Great Recession.

Lifestyle preferences

Surveys find, that compared to older generations, young people today are much likelier to care more about living near a city center, in a walkable neighborhood with convenient access to a variety of amenities and transportation options. A survey by TransitCenter found that 32 percent of those under age 30 identified city neighborhoods as their ideal neighborhood types compared with 16 percent of those over age 30. In comparison, only 12 percent of Generation X and 10 percent of Baby Boomers who were likely to move shared the desire to move to a large urban area.

Young people prefer living in walkable communities with nearby amenities. Three times more Millennials would rather live in a suburb with walkable amenities than a suburb where people drive most places. About 47 percent of the U.S. Millennials also stated that they would be willing to relocate closer to work to reduce their commute. 86 percent of Millennials say it’s important that their city offer a low-cost public transportation system with affordable rates. This is especially true for lower-income Millennials who earn less than $30000 a year (92 percent). The benefit of developing a reliable public transportation system is not solely based on a desire not to depend on a car, 91 percent of Millennials also believe that would create jobs and improve the economy.

Young Americans’ love for cars may be fading away. A survey conducted by Zipcar asked respondents to choose between four technologies – car, television, computer/tablet, and mobile phone – that if lost would have the greatest negative impact on their lives. Only 26 percent of 18 to 34 year-olds said that losing a car would have the greatest negative effect, compared with 33 percent of 35 to 44 year-olds, 49 percent of 45 to 54 year-olds, and 44 percent of those 55 and older.

Some Millennials – 39 percent according to a Zipcar survey – also report driving less in part for environmental reasons.

Higher barriers to youth driving

A couple of such barriers are the adoption of GDL (graduated driver licensing) laws by states over the last several decades and the actions of college campuses to reduce the number of students driving to and around campus.

GDL requirements oblige young drivers to get additional training, and gradually escalate driving privileges in a series of steps over time. Some young people claim GDL laws and the cost and hassle of obtaining a driver’s license are a reason for delaying or forgoing the acquisition of a driver’s license. For example, the process of getting a full license requires up to 60 hours of driving practice with an adult and $600 for driving courses.

But the most common reason for not having a license among people aged 18 to 39, according to a survey conducted by the University of Michigan, is being “too busy” or having “not enough time to get a driver’s license”.

In recent years, colleges and universities in the US have established strategies to reduce the number of students who use cars on campus. As of 2011, 61 percent of large colleges surveyed in North America provided reduced-fare passes for students and/or employees. Some universities, like the University of North Carolina, have gone further by supporting free transit open to the entire community. By supporting and investing in appropriate infrastructure, universities have also been encouraging bike and car-sharing as an alternative to driving on campus. For instance, Zipcar has reported in 2013 that it operated more than 300 car-sharing locations in North America.

Changes in Technology and Transportation Options

Technology can have multiple effects on the transportation decision-making of young people. In the past decade, a wide variety of mobile, location-aware, internet-connected devices has become available. Survey data suggests that at least some young people replace face-to-face interaction with peers for virtual contact through social networks and various messaging apps.

More young people opt-out for “ride-sourcing” services like Lyft and Uber as an alternative to owning and driving a car. A recent study of “ride-sourcing” users in San Francisco found that more than 50 percent were between the ages 25 and 34, and a 2013 Zipcar survey said that transportation apps (such as Lyft or Uber) reduced the need to own a car for 24 percent of Millennials.

New mobile technology also promises to make some modes of transportation – public transit – more efficient and more valuable by enabling people to stay connected while traveling. In an increasing number of cities, public transit riders are able to use smartphones to navigate transit systems, plot routes, and even find out what time the next bus or train will arrive. Public transportation also allows its riders for online socializing and promotes connection to the community.

What the future holds…

While many of the changes that affected youth’s driving choices are most likely permanent, the long-term effects of other changes are more uncertain. How will the economic recovery affect the transportation and the localization decisions of the Millennials? Will the Millennials still prefer walkable urban neighborhoods as they age? Will the new technology-enabled transportation like “ride-sourcing” forever transform mobility for millions or will they serve only a small niche of markets in major cities?

The answers to these questions are uncertain. But even if the external conditions change in ways that encourage driving, the transportation habits learned by the Millennials may prove difficult or slow to break. Therefore, State and federal officials should retool transportation policies to encourage the change toward an efficient and sustainable transportation system.

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