An auto industry exec might argue that millennials are driving less, and are less likely to buy cars, because they’re broke. But a new report explains in detail why anyone who makes that argument is missing the point–and why millennials, the largest generation in the U.S., are likely to keep shunning cars no matter how the economy changes.
“The general trajectory we’ve been on, this 60 year driving boom, really does appear to be over,” says Phineas Baxandall, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the organization that co-authored the report with the Frontier Group. An update on a previous 2012 report, the study pulls in new census data through last year, along with multiple state-specific studies and opinion polls.
All of the evidence points in one direction: Millennials have a fundamentally different attitude toward cars than previous generations. We’re more likely to want to live in cities than suburbs, which makes owning a car more of an annoyance than a convenience. We’re more likely to use technology that make it easier not to drive, whether that’s an app to track the subway in real time or find a bike share station. We’re more likely to value walkable neighborhoods.
Part of the trend is also driven by external forces, like the fact that some states are making it more difficult to get a drivers license, so the number of high school seniors with a license keeps dropping. Universities are making it more difficult to keep cars on campus, and adding new programs, like bike sharing, that students might give students new habits they want to keep after graduating.
The report parses out economic issues, and notes that millennials are driving less regardless of whether or not they have jobs, and whether or not they’re making a lot of money. Yes, if you’re living in your parents’ basement job-hunting, you might be less likely to drive, but you’re also less likely to drive if you’re working in a startup in New York or San Francisco. (The report also points out that the trends of living at home longer, and waiting to get married, had started long before the recession that automakers blame for dropping car sales).
In fact, all Americans are driving a little less, but millennials are leading the trend. The report argues that it’s time for transportation planners to catch up, especially when as a country we’re still spending about $27 billion a year to expand freeways.
“Planners need to operate as if they have some kind of crystal ball,” says Baxandall. “When they think about what the future is going to be, it just makes sense to look at the people who are going to be the biggest users of transportation infrastructure for the next 50 years–it’s going to be millennials.”
“This is a trend that has a lot of benefits, from our ability to reduce traffic congestion, to reduce the 30,000 highway fatalities we have every year, to reduce climate change emissions and pollution,” he adds. “Our government leaders should not just be reluctantly catching up to it–they should ideally be ahead of the trend helping this shift happen.”