Millennials Will Drive More As They Age, But Still Less Than Their Parents

At some point over the past few years, a lot of my friends started moving to Silver Spring and Takoma Park and Falls Church. These inner-ring, transit-connected suburbs of DC are still far less compact and walkable than the neighborhoods my friends moved from. So they bought cars.

Many young people opt for urban living in walkable, compact neighborhoods -- even once they have kids. Photo: ##http://letssavemichigan.com/blog/entry/real-estate-values-increase-with-walkability/##Let's Save Michigan##

Why did they do this? They’re entering peak driving age, which is historically between 35 and 54. They have more money than they did in their early 20s. But mostly, they had kids. Of all my friends, I now have exactly one that is still proudly car-free with kids.

In light of the new U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group report on changing driving habits, led by young people, the question arises: Won’t those young people also drive more as they get older?

Reports of diminished interest in driving focus on two groups: baby boomers, the generation that came of age with the automobile and settled in car-dependent suburbs, who are now retiring and driving less; and millennials, the oldest of whom are in their early thirties now and the youngest of whom aren’t even old enough to drive.

Millennials’ shift away from automobile travel is well documented, especially in last year’s report, “Transportation and the New Generation,” by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group. That report found that between 2001 and 2009, annual driving by the 16-to-34 age cohort decreased 23 percent, from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita. The same age group also made 24 percent more trips by bike and 40 percent more trips by public transit.

With more people having children later in life, the vast majority of millennials are still childless. They also haven’t hit their prime earning years, which tend to be prime driving years.

That’s true, said U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall, co-author of the new report on driving trends, but the expected increase in driving by millennials had already been factored into the reports forecasts — all of which entail far less driving than government models predict. “Our scenarios all assume that millenials will drive more when they get older,” Baxandall told Streetsblog. “The real question isn’t, ‘Will millennials drive more as they get older?’ It’s, ‘Will they drive more than their parents as they get older?’”

There are persuasive reasons to think they won’t.

Americans drive no more total miles now than in 2004, and no more per capita than in 1996. Image: ##http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/new-direction##A New Direction##

First, what were the factors that led to what U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group call “The Driving Boom”? Massive highway expansion, bankrolled by a fat Highway Trust Fund. Suburban sprawl. The rise of the working woman. A 1950s car culture of cruising down the main drag, having burgers and milk-shakes in your car, even watching movies from your car.

Let’s start with car culture. Young people now say that losing their computer or their cell phone would be a far greater loss than going without their car, if they even have one. Baby boomers still say losing their car would be the most disastrous. And millennials just haven’t inherited that excitement over cars or the desire to spend their time tending to them. They don’t see cars as a hobby, just a way to get around — and an increasingly inconvenient one. According to the report, “less than 15 percent of millennials describe themselves as ‘car enthusiasts’ as opposed to 30 percent of baby boomers.”

Meanwhile, sprawl is reaching its limits on a number of fronts. The federal Highway Trust Fund, as we’ve endlessly reported, is expected to go bankrupt in 2015. And another major rush to buy cars doesn’t seem to be in the cards: U.S. households had 1.24 vehicles per driver in 2006, a number which has dropped only slightly and is unlikely to rise again.

It also seems that people simply can’t tolerate driving longer distances. Studies have shown that most people aren’t willing to spend more than 1.1 to 1.3 hours per day traveling, or roughly a half-hour commute each way to work. (There are exceptions to this general rule.)

The half-hour limit on commute times probably has some give. It stands to reason that a longer commute spent multi-tasking, as is possible on transit, would be more tolerable to many people. Biking and walking commutes can help people save time by skipping the gym. But it’s hard to see people suddenly happy to spend more time stuck in traffic.

And as Baxandall and co-author Tony Dutzik say in the report, driving speeds have probably peaked. “Barring major technological advances,” they write, “there are few prospects for a repeat of the quantum leap in travel speeds that occurred during the Driving Boom.”

Driverless vehicles are supposed to be the next “major technological advance,” which would ostensibly allow for less congestion, increased safety, and higher speeds. But while driverless cars have already been tested, the full communications network that could really change the way the automobile transportation system functions is a long way off. “We’re far enough off from those systems being viable that I think it shouldn’t be affecting our decisions about transportation investment right now,” Baxandall said.

Meanwhile, despite new forms of gasoline coming on the market, prices aren’t expected to drop. High gas prices have already changed the way people travel, encouraging people to choose transit over driving in record numbers. Those changes are likely to harden into long-term trends if gas prices stay high, causing people to “reorient their lives to avoid the expense of fuel,” the report says. One main way to avoid paying for gas is to avoid driving. That’s helped jump-start the return to the cities.

And it’s not just that young people are sick of traffic jams. They like cities. They like the vibrant sidewalk culture of a walkable town, the accessibility of a variety of amenities, and the short travel times – by a variety of modes – that are possible in the city. The growing preference for urban living is well documented, and the outer suburbs are losing popularity.

But the biggest change might be technology. We’ll explore all the ways that technology is changing travel habits in our next post.

  • While people may drive more as they age, I think the communities you mentioned are a poor example of that. According to recent ACS data, most people in Takoma Park and the inside-the-Beltway part of Silver Spring walk, bike or take transit to work.

    Sure, they’re not Columbia Heights or wherever, but these communities were built before World War II around streetcar lines, just as much of DC was built. Today, they’re seeing lots of high-density, transit-oriented development – housing, offices, shops, etc. – that allows people, even those who live in dreaded single-family homes a few blocks from downtown Silver Spring, to get around without a car. I grew up in an apartment there with a walkscore of 95. Many of my friends and acquaintances with kids chose to live in Silver Spring and Takoma Park because they wouldn’t have to drive as much, if at all.

    If your friends were moving to, say, Clarksburg and bought cars, you might have a case. Until then, you might want to spend a little more time in Silver Spring to see how people actually live here.

  • “But mostly, they had kids.”

    The move from the city may not be about driving as much as it is about schools.

  • Alex Knight

    Thanks for writing this. The “they’ll drive more when they have kids” argument is very tired. It seems based on the idiotic belief that you somehow must own a suburban home and have two cars to be “real” adults. They also seem to think that when these 20-somethigns get older this trend will just disappear and everything will get back to “normal”. So pointing out that this is a trend and that overall driving numbers will continue to go down even as people have families is very appropriate.

  • Joe R.

    And if cities would make a serious effort to improve their schools the major reason some parents leave cities wouldn’t exist.

  • The “they’ll drive more when they get older” argument also ignores the fact that Millenials are not the last generation of human beings on the planet. As they age into their 30s and 40s there’ll be another generation to take their place, and it’s very likely that that generation will drive even less than the Millenials.

  • James Reefer

    Yea, but then you’d have to fight the teacher’s unions. Fucking up the environment is easier.

  • Danny G

    Money talks. And student loan debt whispers in your ear, ever so quietly, “now is not the time to buy a car”.

  • Schools are there for two purposes: education and credentialling. Cities can do a lot to imporve the former, but the latter is outside their control.

  • Jared R

    But how much will these budding parents demand more “urban” living in the suburbs, in historic downtowns? Suburbs and cities are not black and white; there are some pretty hefty pockets of urbanism in the suburbs (at least in the NY Metro Region). There are also a tremendous number of second and third tier cities. Obviously, we’ll see how this plays out over time.

  • Inspector Spacetime

    Another aspect of this is the Millennials are literally a smaller generation. They would have to exceed the amount of driving Baby Boomers have typically completed to just break even. It’s not just the Milennials. Gen X is also not making up for lost miles driven.

  • Ex-driver

    I hear ya. I made a conscious decision to borrow heavily to get the best education I could, fully aware it would likely foreclose the possibility of buying big-ticket items like a car and a house. No suburban dream for me. And I’m probably not the only one.

  • Actually, I’ve heard that Millenials now outnumber Boomers (though they might not outnumber the number of Boomers that there had been when they were this age).

  • Why are some people with kids leaving the center city? Schools.

    DC, Boston and San Francisco have much more serious school problems than
    NYC, as screwed up as Bloomberg’s Dept of Education (still legally the
    “Bored” of Education.) While getting your kids into a good NYC school
    can be a full time job, our property taxes are a fraction of the
    surrounding suburbs. So it’s possible for NYC parents to pay for after school classes to make up for things like missing arts and music,
    and also to afford that 120 year old Brownstone. Just don’t be dropping
    $10,000 plus a year per car to drive everywhere and you can afford a lot of other things.

  • Jack Jackson

    depends on the socioeconomic class that reproduces most

    well-educated, urban millenials will worry about careers and income before children, and will likely have fewer

    less educated poorer millenials may reproduce faster, and unless able to provide their offspring with benefits of education and income, will raise another generation to take their place.

    Idiocracy the movie is not that far fetched.

  • Perhaps, but I grew up in the suburbs, in a family where no one had ever gone to university. Things change from generation to generation, and usually for the better in terms of education/socioeconomic status, even if the gains aren’t what they should be in the land of “The American Dream”.

  • Perhaps, but I grew up in the suburbs, in a family where no one had ever gone to university. Things change from generation to generation, and usually for the better in terms of education/socioeconomic status, even if the gains aren’t what they should be in the land of “The American Dream”.

  • Anonymous

    Suburbs and driving are not necessarily the same thing. While cities are obviously the gold standard for urbanism and transit and always will be, there are fairly dense and transit-accessible suburbs out there and those will be the ones that grow quickly over the next years and decades and become even more walkable and transit-oriented as more millenniums have kids and need to move somewhere with better schools. There will continue to be people that still want that American Dream of a house, 2 cars, and 2 kids in a semi-rural environment. That’s a unique product for a unique type of person, and I would argue that some suburbs – the ones that truly offer this “dream” – will probably continue to be successful. But…I would argue that most suburbs fall somewhere in between. They’re very built-up, traffic is terrible, schools are OK but not great, the houses are cheaply built and starting to fall apart, and there are none of the good things a city offers either. These are the places that will fail in great numbers and become (honestly) the new slums for the poor that are driven out of the cities by high prices.

    Where will that leave us? Successful cities with OK schools, successful transit-oriented inner suburbs with good schools, slums in between, and a few successful edge communities.

  • Anonymous

    Given that the quality of schools in the US is basically tied to the wealth of local residents, further gentrification in cities may cause some rapid improvement in their schools.

    I remember an article I read–wish I could find it now–which described a situation in San Francisco where the parent whose child had been assigned to a poorly-regarded public school, who was not able to afford private schooling, went on a campaign to convince other parents who were wavering to take a chance on it as well. The result was successful, and the school actually shot up in the rankings as a result.

    Cities may end up with schools which are better than OK.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to think that too. I guess I just haven’t heard of much improvement on that front so far even though wealth has seriously increased in some cities like NYC and San Francisco. But your example is a good point – maybe this is happening more than we think. And, of course, once a school starts to improve, then it’s a domino effect because more and more wealthier parents are willing to send their children there. The increasing tax base of wealthier cities will also mean better resources for city schools, which have long been starved. The downside is that many city schools are under control of a massive and unwieldy school board and bureaucracy, and I feel like the waste and mismanagement that often goes with that is part of why we haven’t seen much improvement so far. Also, here in Buffalo, we have a new program (I believe it originally started in NYC) that guarantees free college tuition to students who go to the city schools for at least 4 years …. programs like this might help attract more parents to the city schools in many cities if the programs take wider root.

  • David

    But, of course, as we have just found it with the Montgomery County school scandal, in which 60% of all students have been flunking the math exams since time began, well, the suburban schools, even in the richest of the rich counties, aren’t really that much better than DC schools. They just have more articulate people running them who are more sophisticated in hiding the facts. Oh, and 50% of the well off Montgomery County boys and girls flunk the biology exams. Well done, indeed. So much, much better than in DC!

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