What Did UCLA Really Discover About Millennials’ Reasons for Driving Less?

Tony Dutzik is senior policy analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of a recent report on shifting transportation habits.

Members of the Millennial generation drive less than they did a decade ago. That much is clear. But are Millennials driving less simply because of the economy? Or are they driving less by choice, because of changing values or changing technologies?

A recent UCLA report may be underestimating the enormity of the influence mobile internet has on our daily lives -- including our transportation behavior. Photo: ##http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Absorbed-device-users-oblivious-to-danger-4876709.php##SF Gate##

The answer to that question matters. If the factors driving the Millennials to drive less are lasting, then America can probably afford to spend far less on new highway capacity in the years to come, freeing up resources for other long-neglected transportation priorities.

A 2012 study [PDF] by researchers at UCLA that is just now making it into broader discussion (see this piece from the Atlantic Cities last week) sheds some light on the subject — though not necessarily for the reasons that are gaining the most attention.

The UCLA study analyzes data from the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) — which was last conducted in 2009 — to investigate how various economic, demographic and other factors influenced people’s travel behavior.

The most important finding, perhaps, is that younger Americans are indeed driving less than previous generations. “All things equal,” the study found, “younger generations appear to (a) travel fewer miles and (b) make fewer trips than was the case for previous generations at the same stage in their lives.” Specifically, they found that young people born in the 1990s traveled 18 percent fewer miles and took 4 percent fewer trips than those born in previous decades. And the data show that while the economy is one important factor, it’s not the only factor.

That finding should be interpreted with caution since it is based on only a few years’ worth of information about drivers born in the 1990s. Even with that caveat, however, the UCLA study might provide the most direct evidence to date for a generational shift in travel patterns.

The other results of the study, however, are attracting more attention — especially its conclusion that there is no link between reductions in driving among Millennials and the use of “information and communications technologies.”

That’s unfortunate, because the UCLA study uses only one metric — daily use of the Internet — to assess how technology use affected travel behavior in 2009. For young people especially, it’s a very limited and possibly outmoded measure.

The 2009 NHTS, on which the study was based, did not include any questions about texting or the use of social media — both increasingly important means of communication among young people at the time. Two-thirds of all 18- to 29-year-olds were using social media by late 2008, according to data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project (compared to no more than 35 percent of any other age group). By 2010, Pew concluded that text messaging “had become the primary way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging and voice calling as the go-to daily communication tool.”

If, therefore, young people were texting or using social media to connect with friends rather than seeing them in person — something suggested as early as 2010 by surveys such as those run by KRC Research and Zipcar — the NHTS, and, by extension, the UCLA study, would not have been able to tell us.

Moreover, as the study’s authors note, daily Internet use is correlated with a host of other factors — including education and income — that also indicate a greater propensity to travel. They acknowledge that “the apparent relationship between web use and [passenger-miles traveled] may thus actually reflect the effect of income on both web use and travel.”

The study’s findings on the impact of technology are even less useful when one considers the vast changes that have taken place since 2009. Tens of millions of Americans now have access to location-aware, Internet-connected devices that they carry with them 24/7 — a qualitative difference from the previous reliance on wired home Internet. As my co-author, Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG, and I describe in our recent report, A New Way to Go, those technologies have unleashed a host of new transportation options — from expanded car-sharing and bike-sharing to real-time transit apps and new models for ride-sharing — most of which did not exist just four years ago.

The UCLA study is an important reminder that the implications of technology on transportation are complex and don’t always run in one direction. But while the study’s findings of changed travel patterns among Millennials add to the evidence in support of a generational shift in travel behaviors, we still need better information to determine how the advent of the smartphone, social media, and other technological advances of the last several years — advances that have revolutionized so many corners of American life — are affecting our transportation choices.

  • anon_coward

    yep, at almost 40 i buy lots of stuff online, or i check the inventory and head to B&M
    my inlaws can’t figure out how to buy online and drive to buy almost everything

  • AlexB

    Maybe the millenials are driving less because they have the internet instead where they can talk to people and shop for free. But did they look at biking, walking or taking transit? If those also went down over the same period, then the internet hypothesis might be correct. If other transit modes went up, then the millenials just shifted their mode and I’d guess the cost of driving was a more important factor than internet use.

  • Lars Ulrich

    another possible variable…what are the rates of DUIs among millenials? Perhaps our public service efforts to reduce drunk driving may have had other long range impacts on overall driving…I know my parents didn’t have MADD posters in their classrooms

  • Andres

    It’s worth pointing out the difference in logic shifts, as well. For older generations, a 20 minute drive to work is a wasted 20 minutes. However, a 40 minute bus/train ride to work is a wasted 40 minutes. Obviously, you pick the shorter commute, and end up driving everywhere. Sure, you could spend that 40 minutes reading a book, but you could also spend that 20 minutes listening to an audiobook.

    With newer generations, a 20 minute drive to work is a wasted 20 minutes. However, a 40 minute bus/train ride to work is 40 minutes of quiet time to catch up on email/write papers/write code/etc. Time spent on public transit is no longer wasted time, and so it becomes a much more viable means of daily commuting.

    My wife loved her quiet time on the bus on the way to work. Uninterrupted time to deal with email and plan her day without the distraction of coworkers. Once she’d get into work, she found it hard to find similar quiet time.

  • Belov

    I’d guess that the answer to your mode choice question is buried somewhere in the data that produced the “18% fewer miles and 4% fewer trips” line in the article. It’s probably a combination of shorter trips and trips using different modes that add up to the dramatic reduction in driving.

  • Jack Jackson

    “a 40 minute bus/train ride to work is 40 minutes of quiet time to catch up on email/write papers/write code/etc”

    you’ve clearly never been on the Orange Line at rush hour

  • Jesse

    I didnt read the study and only scanned the Atlantic article, but the Streetsblog summary treats the matter as though the fewer miles driven can only be attributed to the economy or to information technology and that there can be no third explanation. In my experience, while millenials certainly do love their smartphones, the generational shift has less to do with the availability of other technology and more to do with a preference for urban living. Most millenials were raised in sterile suburbs and couldn´t wait to grow up and get out. Living close to the city center simply means fewer miles traveled every day.

    And preference for urban living and public transportation has little to do with the information technology of the day. For instance, I still see plenty of young people reading good old-fashioned books on the subway.

  • Granted I only read the Executive Summary, but I got a different take on the study than Mr. Dutzik, i.e., the Millenials travel habits are much like older folks, that the electronic communication revolution doesn’t reduce travel very much, and that one of the biggest impediments to Millenial’s vehicle travel is the economic downturn. So I would surmise that if the economy were to improve and travel be more affordable, their mileage would go up.

    Did I miss something?

  • Anonymous

    No, Khal, you did read the original article in Atlantic Cities correctly. I came away from it with exactly the same impressions. More studies over time are needed. The idea that millennials will continue to drive less than their elders is not yet substantiated. Further, we do not know why they are currently traveling fewer miles. Mr. Dutzig misconstrued the article, and most of the commenters either have not read that article or have read it but are also misconstruing its findings. I think this is happening because we want to believe this reduction in driving is related to communications technologies and urban living, and we hope these will be permanent shifts in behavior. Indeed, it would be great news. We will have to see.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Dutzig is not “misconstruing” the Atlantic Cities article, he is DISPUTING the Atlantic Cities article’s take on the original ~150pp. UCLA study.

  • davistrain

    Here’s something that may or may not be relevant: As a long time observer of the popular music scene, I wonder, “Do people write songs about cars anymore?” Back in my younger days, we had “Rocket 88”, “Buick 59”, “Little Deuce Coupe” and “409”. I looked up “Little Red Corvette” by Prince, and found that it was on the charts 30 years ago.

  • Anonymous

    Really? I did not know that putting quotation marks around otherwise unambiguous words was necessary to state one’s views clearly. In person, do you use air quotes?

  • Mike Mills

    Good luck with an Internet connection on Metro In the tunnels. Sucks. In fact, of all the transit systems I have been on in the world…quiet and peaceful are not at the top of my adjective list.

  • Mike Mills

    What is a more interesting data point is mode split that include work at home as a mode. Pisarski did god analysis of this. Work at home will likely surpass transit in terms of mode share in the next ACS and/or NHTS. It will also far exceed bike/pedestrian mode split (already does in fact).

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I wouldn’t expect that internet use replaces visiting friends in person. More often, it actually facilitates visiting in person. But still, if you’re going to be texting about where and when to meet, and calling each other with updates, and checking in at all the locations you go to, and sharing videos with each other as you go from one place to the next, then you’re going to want to be on transit or foot.

  • Juan Matute

    Kenny, I didn’t conduct the research but this seems consistent with the possible reasons I’ve heard the researchers discuss.

  • Juan Matute

    I work with the researchers at UCLA. Like many, I have only read the executive summary, but I’ve also heard many presentations on the research. There really wasn’t enough to tell the long-term effect of information and communications technology on travel over the next few decades. However, a major finding was that the downturn in teen and young adult travel was a result of the economic downturn. Whether or not travel behavior sticks as the economy improves remains to be seen.

    Travel behavior is complex and learned — not simply a reaction to external stimuli. The depression shaped how an entire generation experienced money and wealth. Perhaps the economic downturn will have similar effects on travel behavior. Time will tell. Or another grant and top-notch UCLA researchers working on the California Household Travel Survey dataset 😉

  • Anonymous

    LRC was not actually about a car…

  • “Most millenials were raised in sterile suburbs and couldn´t wait to grow up and get out.”

    Ignoring the second generalization, were most millennials raised in the suburbs?

  • Chisel one

    This word, “enormity”, I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • myselfrickey

    I don’t agree with you, probably during the time of writing you will go to the another track lrc actually not relevant any kind of car or driving lessons

  • BruceMcF

    I was using the quotation marks in their use of surrounding text that I was quoting.

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