Not Just a Phase: Young Americans Won’t Start Motoring Like Their Parents

Image: U.S. Public Interest Research Group
Young adults in 2009 were driving less and walking, biking, and riding transit more than young adults in 2001, according to the National Household Travel Survey. Chart: U.S. Public Interest Research Group

A raft of recent research indicates that young adults just aren’t as into driving as their parents were. Young people today are walking, biking, and riding transit more while driving less than previous generations did at the same age. But the vast majority of state DOTs have been loathe to respond by changing their highway-centric ways. 

A new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group points out the folly of their inaction: If transportation officials are waiting for Americans born after 1983 to start motoring like their parents did, they are likely to be sorely disappointed.

Though some factors underlying the shift in driving habits are likely temporary — caused by the recession, for instance — just as many appear to be permanent, the authors found. That means American transportation agencies should get busy preparing for a far different future than their traffic models predict.

“The Millennial generation is not only less car-focused than older Americans by virtue of being young, but they also drive less than previous generations of young people,” write authors Tony Dutzik, Jeff Inglis, and Phineas Baxandall.

There’s a good deal of evidence that the recession cannot fully explain the trend away from driving among young people. Notably, driving declined even among millennials who stayed employed, and “between the recession years of 2001 and 2009, per-capita driving declined by 16 percent among 16 to 34 year-olds with jobs,” the authors write.

Even as the economy has rebounded, car commuting has declined, and the drop is most pronounced among younger workers. According to the Census, between 2006 and 2013, the share of commutes by driving or carpooling dropped 1.5 percent among workers 16 to 24, 1.3 percent among workers 25 to 44, and 0.5 percent among workers 45 and older. The drop in car commuting among 16- to 24-year-olds continued after the recession ended, though at a slower pace, falling 0.5 percent between 2009 and 2013.

There’s also a big mismatch between the places where the recession hit hardest and the places where driving is dropping the fastest. “The states and urban areas that experienced the biggest increases in unemployment during the recession were generally not those that experienced the greatest declines in VMT,” the authors write.

While economic factors can’t be completely discounted, the authors argue that they are not as significant as longer-term shifts in attitudes. A survey by Deloitte, for example, found that millennials are three times more willing to give up their cars than their parents’ generation. The National Association of Realtors found that today’s young adults are more likely to view a car as “just transportation” and not inherently superior to other modes.

Driving rates peak between the ages of 35 and 55, and millennials will likely drive more as they reach that stage of life, but they will still drive less than their parents did during those years, the authors conclude. Standard traffic models that guide transportation spending decisions and forecast steadily increasing driving rates for years on end fail to account for these shifts.

Dutzik, Inglis, and Baxandall say policy makers need to respond immediately to prepare for a future where Americans aren’t driving more every year. They recommend incorporating a greater degree of uncertainty to projections about how many cars are going to be on the road in the distant future.

  • anon_coward

    that’s because driving sucks
    NYC the only times i drive is when i have to

  • BlueFairlane

    Everything I see suggests this is exclusively an urban trend. I have yet to see anything suggesting this is a trend embraced by youth as a whole. It’s not so much the young Americans are driving less as it is that young Americans in cities are driving less.

  • HamTech87

    Sure, if you live in a place where getting anywhere is virtually impossible without a car, then this is true. But what I’m seeing is a shift in where these young people want to live.

    They are choosing places where they don’t have to drive (i.e. more urban) or even own a car. My kids and their friends are even prioritizing urban colleges over suburban and rural ones.

    Then there is the drivers license. My kid and his suburban kids’ friends don’t even have a license, with the exception of a minority of kids, when they could have gotten one over a year ago. They’re walking, riding their bikes, hopping the commuter line to the city, and even taking the suburban bus line (using a smartphone app) to their summer jobs.

  • BlueFairlane

    But what I’m seeing is a shift in where these young people want to live.

    None of these studies posted here or other places illustrate that as a trend, and I’ve not seen anything suggesting younger people are flocking to urban areas at a greater rate now than they were 20 or 40 years ago.

    I’ll see your suburban kid anecdote and raise you one of my own. I have 22-year-old twin sons raised by me here in Chicago and a 17-year-old daughter raised by my ex-wife in a Kentucky town with a population around 60,000. My sons never had any interest in driving, and one of them still hasn’t gotten his license. My daughter, on the other hand, got her license the instant she was legally allowed, and all her friends were just like her. They drive everywhere, and they’re happy to do it. They are not doing any of the things your grandchildren’s suburban friends are doing.

  • Alan

    80% of the US population is urbanized, and I’m willing to bet the percentage of young people is even higher:

  • anon_coward

    this all happened before. at younger ages people prefer urban life and frittering money away on partying. as they get older and start families they move out from city cores.

    most of NYC used to be suburbia and still is low to medium density. most people here even live outside of Manhattan and outside the dense urban parts of the city. i have family who moved out to queens in the 1930’s when Newtown was actually a new town and most of queens was farm land. in the 50’s it was moving outside the cities. the next wave to move out of the urban core is coming as well as millennials marry and start families

  • Alan

    Obviously I’m a biased sample as a reader of this website, but here’s my anecdote:
    I got my license almost immediately when I turned 16 in 2004. But I’ve never commuted by car full-time, and never want to. It seems depressing and lonely to live anywhere where I have no non-car options, not to mention expensive.

    I wonder if the strict enforcement of drunk-driving laws has something to do with how young people avoid the suburbs now? Much of how young people socialize involves alcohol, and there’s no safe way to combine alcohol and cars. Taxis are expensive and designated drivers are difficult to set up. Living in an urban area means walking and mass transit are options and taxi rides are short and reasonably affordable.

    Part of the reason I moved away from San Diego is that there was nowhere I could live where I could have a reasonable non-auto commute to work, combined with any reasonable social opportunities.

  • BlueFairlane

    An interesting statistic, though I’d say it points more toward the idea that the census definition of “urban” isn’t the right term for this discussion. The census defines urban as any area with a population great than 50,000, which diverges from what I think when I think urban. Moreover, the census defines an “urban cluster” as any place with a population greater than 2500. Your 80% figure includes people who live in those urban clusters. The population of Hodgenville, Kentucky would be included in that figure, and they certainly aren’t what I would think of as urban.

  • Alan

    But will they move to exurbs or will they prefer walkable streetcar suburbs (or their New Urbanist imitations) with mass transit?

    Or, where zoning is loose enough to make it affordable, will they live in 3-bedroom apartments or townhouses in the city?

    Most American cities are far more affordable than the coastal megalopolises, and in many cases neighborhoods near transit with moderately-sized houses on modest lots are more affordable than newly constructed 3000 sqft. houses on half-acre lots on culs-de-sac.

  • anon_coward

    they will move to where there are good schools for the kids. as the kids get older the priority is on schools with no busing from other hoods.

    for the cost of living in NYC i can buy a nice house in a smaller city that’s more energy efficient than almost everything here and better schools. not a priority since my oldest is only in 2nd grade, but once he goes to 6th it means a school with busing.

    by definition few will move to exuburbs because they are tiny with a few people there. but lots of towns in the 100,000 or so population range with good schools, fresh air and brand new homes instead of 75 year old crap in NYC

  • Alan

    The residents of Athertonville, Kentucky probably disagree with you about what ‘urban’ is.

    Beyond that, I don’t have the exact stats at the tip of my fingers, but a huge proportion of the the American population lives in sizable metro areas of at least, say, 50,000 people, where a bicycle (or transit and walking, depending) can be a practical solution for a significant proportion of transportation needs for a significant part of one’s life. And nowadays, with IT-enabled technologies like Uber/Lyft jitnies and Car2Go/Zipcar carsharing ever-more-widely available, the holes in transit/bike/walk transportation options can more easily be patched.

  • Alan

    In most of those towns, you’ll drive a lot more than in NYC. But there’s a significant difference in VMT comparing a streetcar suburb to the 30-mile-car-commute/1-car-per-adult-or-teen lifestyle of exurbs.

  • anon_coward

    who cares? today there is amazon and grocery store is like 15 minutes away from the homes i’ve seen. and most cars are a lot more efficient than 30 years ago and for my wife and I the subway and LIRR is already close to $300 a month so it’s not like transportation in NYC is free. and traffic outside NYC isn’t that bad as here in the city. 30 minutes in traffic on I-25 is not the same as an hour in traffic in NYC or packed into the subway

  • Alan

    I’m as much comparing my hometown of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (a prewar streetcar suburb where the kids walk to school and people who work downtown take the bus) to newer suburbs like Franklin, WI where no one would even think of using any means of transit other than a car. The amount of driving done differs dramatically between those types of neighborhoods. Metro NYC is a major outlier compared to neighborhoods like that, which exist in most of the USA.

  • Ian Turner
  • Alex Brideau III

    Not necessarily. My wife and I had a daughter and stayed in our downtown neighborhood even after she reached school age. It helps that a number of local parents got a local charter school started. But I’d argue the fact that they started a charter instead of just moving to the ‘burbs is a significant break from the “family flight” trends of the past.

  • C Monroe

    My niece goes to Grand Valley State in Michigan. Grand Valley has two main campuses, its main one 20 miles from downtown in a bedroom style community and a almost as big urban one on the westside of downtown Grand Rapids. There are equal number of dorms at both campuses but the urban campus dorms cost more and fill up faster. They want to be by everything, clubs, employment center and easier access to other areas of the metro area by transit if needed.

  • John Moore

    Nice…quote wikipedia. Ever go to college?

  • EC

    Yes, younger people prefer urban life. But the point is that now even more younger people prefer it. The difference emphasized in the report isn’t from old to young, it’s from young in the past to young now. (Duh.)

  • Dan

    Great addition to the conversation, yourself.

  • WalkingNPR

    I also wonder how much graduated licensing had to do with it. I got my license just before that started (and even I was about 6 months later doing that than I could have been–I wasn’t in a rush to drive and all my friends were a year or two older than me). It just seems like so much trouble now and sort of dulls the rush of “freedom” that you initially think comes with driving as teen since it’s so eased in anymore.

  • BJToepper

    My uncle was born in the 1930s and can tell you the make, model, and year of nearly any car from the 1940s through the early 60s. This is remarkable. With cars from later eras, he can usually get the make, and perhaps the decade, but nothing more specific — just about the same level of detail I have. He tells me his generation used to obsess about cars like we do nowadays about upcoming smartphone variants. If there is a shift away from cars, it might be that today more young people see them as utility devices, not the objects of veneration like previous generations.

    This all said, I can’t help but think that miles driven is pretty closely correlated with gasoline prices. Prices are mentioned quite often in the underlying report, and not at all in this synopsis…

  • AngryDoc

    It isn’t just gas. The cars themselves are more expensive, and insurance is very expensive. Meanwhile, the true value of the minimum wage has been eroded. Having a car is an expensive luxury for a teen, especially a teen headed to college, where they will load up on more debt.

  • BJToepper

    I mostly agree with you, with the caveat that cars are available at most price points, and many people simply don’t pay insurance, for better or worse. There’s no fudging on fuel costs, though.

  • Jared R

    Which of your kids are more intelligent/inquisitive if you mind me asking? Or, where did your sons go to school and where is your daughter planning on going?

  • murphstahoe

    According to new numbers just released from the U.S. Census Bureau, 80.7 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas as of the 2010 Census.

    Driven by the youth demographic moving to cities.

  • Velomobile1

    Very interesting. I didn’t get a drivers license until I was 19. Rode a bicycle everywhere prior to that. Now at 61 I had been car light for the last 20 + years and have been car free for the last 4 years.

  • Velomobile1

    My first car was a new fully loaded 1972 Datsun 510.

  • Alicia

    Nice try, but he’s quoting Census Bureau data that happens to be hosted by Wikipedia.

  • Alan

    Yep. Used Wikipedia there pretty regularly.

    Turns out it’s sometimes nicer to read a nice article with footnotes pointing to the US Census Bureau sources, as opposed to digging through Census PDFs yourself.

  • anon_coward

    yes, and as people make more money and their student loans get paid off or become a smaller part of their budget expect people to buy other things or move out of cities. especially as millenials age, get married, pool salaries and have children where their priorities go from partying to kids

    it has all happened before in the late 20’s and early 30’s when people first moved out of manhattan. and in the 50’s as people moved out to the burbs

    VMT will continue to drop or stay flat because you don’t need to go to a store for every little thing anymore but i’m fairly sure in another 5 years or so we will see another migration out of cities.

  • Steve LA

    I think what’s really interesting is that no longer seems to be the “only” or even the most desired life path anymore. My girlfriend and I live with our two roommates (all of us are between 26-29) in the city, and it’s pretty amazing. None of us can imagine a scenario where we’d need to change the set-up, and it’s great to have “family” of friends to hang out with, pool resources, have fun, etc… Coupled with the rising number of young people saying they have no interest in marriage, I think you’ll find lots of millennials staying in the city in their friend-families, and if they have kids, just adding them to the mix. We no for sure that none of us want to leave the city ever. It’s just too convenient to be able to ride, uber, metro, etc… out and about everywhere!

  • JoshNY

    Anecdotally: My sister and brother-in-law moved from Hoboken to Maplewood shortly after their daughter was born a couple of years ago. They would’ve stayed in Hoboken because they liked the lifestyle there, but child care was too expensive and in Maplewood my parents can help out. They both commute into the city by train, but basically everything else seems to be done by car (they bought a compact SUV recently, planning to sell my sister’s old Civic, but now are thinking it makes sense to keep both). And this by people who preferred the walkable lifestyle when possible. I’m not sure there really ARE many “walkable” suburbs, and those that strike me as being the most walkable (Bronxville and Montclair, to name a couple) are really expensive, either in housing prices or taxes or both.

  • Alan

    Most people do most of their driving during their commutes, so if they’re transit commuters that just run errands by auto, they already drive far less than the average American. And once you’re in a suburb designed for easy parking, keeping an additional cheap car around is pretty low cost in money & effort.

    Even in ‘walkable’ suburbs, adults don’t do all that much walking without trying to. But they don’t drive huge distances, and their kids can walk to school & friends’ houses & stuff. And walkable suburbs are generally pretty bikeable, too, even if biking isn’t common there yet. That’s something I can see becoming a lot more significant as the millenial generation ages into needing family-sized spaces, which are usually more affordable in the suburbs. Even since I left 8 years ago, a lot more people have started biking in my parents’ streetcar suburb, and they apparently just laid down green lanes and bike boxes on a local main drag:

    Most of ‘urban’ Portland has a pretty similar layout to other 1900-1940 era streetcar suburbs, and was pretty easily retrofit to a nontrivial bike/transit modeshare. It’s not full-bore traditional walkable urbanism, but it’s a lot less car dependent than the postwar norm, and can densify to have urbanized nodes if the zoning permits.

  • WalkingNPR

    That’s true. Because I’d much rather tune out and read or get some work done in an hour on the subway than spend 30 minutes stressed out and wasting my time in traffic.

  • WalkingNPR

    Great. Go buy your nice house in your small city (but then don’t feel entitled to drive into my large city). That’s what you want. But at least leave a little room for the idea that a “nice house in a small city” is not some cultural imperative that everyone wants and it’s time we stop using our resources that way.

    Also, confused why living in a city keeps being equated with “partying” for you. I’ve lived in the heart of Chicago and Manhattan and I spend essentially zero of my time clubbing or partying. There are reasons to choose living in a city (cultural opportunities, being able to walk or take transit to absolutely anything I might need, proximity of friends and activities) that have nothing to do with whatever “partying young person in the city” straw man you have imagined.

  • C Monroe

    There is those everywhere. In my metro there is East Grand Rapids(the streetcar suburb) and Rockford(the modern suburb). East Grand Rapids has some of the best schools in the area, Rockford is a step down. EGR is walkable and has transit while in Rockford you need a car most of the time for anything(the exception is the tiny old downtown Rockford village that was swallowed as the metro grew).

  • Nathanael

    When did you move away from San Diego? The transit system there has been improving pretty fast.

  • Nathanael

    BlueFairline: sure, of course rural Americans are still driving. But rural areas are depopulating and young Americans are moving to cities — this is actually a trend which has been going continuously for a very, very long time, at least 100 years. As Murphstahoe notes, 80.7% of the US population lives in cities, and it’s *still increasing*.

    Living on farms kind of sucks. In polls, less than 20% of people want to live on farms, and even many of them can’t afford to because farms are not very profitable.
    The “suburbs” are a somewhat more complicated issue, but they’re showing the same trends away from driving as the cities are.

  • Nathanael

    It is a stone-cold fact that people in cities with populations as low as 50,000 — or even lower — are shifting away from driving. I live in one such city with a population of roughly 50,000, and there’s been a pretty sharp shift away from driving. It shows up in all the data.

    In these smaller cities, the shift is mostly to walking and bicycles, rather than to buses or trains.

  • Nathanael

    I can point out some examples of cities of 5000 where there is an identifiable shift away from driving and towards walking. In such places people still keep their cars, but they don’t use them if they can avoid it; they walk to work if they can.

  • Nathanael

    Bzzzt — wrong. Millenials who have familes are mostly staying in the urban core, if they can afford to stay. They are staying and buying 3-bedroom and 4-bedroom apartments and condos. (The shortage of these means that many couples with kids are forced out of the urban core for economic reasons — but they still TRY to stay.)

    The same is actually true of about half of the GenXers, so the trend is quite clear already.

  • Nathanael

    I have an example of a couple *older* than me who moved to the suburbs of Minneapolis when they got married and had their kid — and then a couple of years later, moved *back downtown* and are *much happier*.

    This is pretty common for one-child couples. Who needs a rambling house in the suburbs? Who needs a yard? Your kid is *isolated* in the countryside. Much

    easier in the big city to find social activity for your *one* kid. As the school districts get better in the urban core and worse in the suburbs, that is no longer an issue either.

    I’m sure that parents who are pumping out 4 or more kids will still generally head for the countryside, but that’s really uncommon these days.

  • neroden

    There’s a big campaign on Seattle Transit Blog to get developers to build more 3-bedroom and 4-bedroom apartments. It’s pretty obvious why…. families with 1 or 2 kids who want to stay in the city.

    As for schools, the urban-core schools are getting better in most cities, while the suburban schools are degenerating and declining as property values drop. They’re going to trade places in quality soon (already have on some places).

  • neroden

    Most of New Jersey is infamously unwalkable. It’s actually worse than, for instance, the suburbs of Los Angeles.

    Those housing prices are worth paying attention to: they indicate that there is massive, massive demand for walkable suburbs. Eventually the developers will catch on and will build more walkable suburbs, because that’s where the $$$ are.

    In short, there are a lot of families who want to live downtown, but only the well-to-do can afford it. *The suburbs are the new ghetto*. This is a major trend worth paying attention to.

  • neroden

    If you’re buying a house in a small city — for instance, in downtown Auburn NY or downtown Corning NY or next door to the train station in Tarrytown NY — then, yes, you’re doing urban living and driving less. That is more common and popular than it used to be. The sprawlburbs are turning into ghettos.

  • neroden

    C Monroe: that’s a great example. That’s the big contrast, really, the big change in taste. Young people now prefer East Grand Rapids to Rockford; in the 80s young people preferred Rockford to East Grand Rapids. It’s a big, big, change.

  • neroden

    I agree, driving sucks.

    The contrast is that back in the 80s very few people thought that driving sucked. Now lots of people think that driving sucks.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, exactly. I honestly think starting families fell out as the most desired life path even back when I was young in the early 1980s. A lot of people I graduated with didn’t get married until their late 30s. Some had children, some didn’t. Some, like me, never married or had children.

    Living with a bunch of friends in a big apartment or house actually could be a decent lifetime arrangement if you all get along. As you said, even if one or more of the couples have kids, why not just add the kid to the mix? Really, this living arrangement is analogous to small groups of people living in a village-an arrangement which was worked well for millenia. For social and other reasons, humans should be in groups. Living alone breeds mental issues and depression.

  • Alan

    San Diego is fundamentally an auto-oriented sunbelt city. Its transit service is, perhaps, acceptable in some parts of the core city, which has a couple streetcar-suburb walkable (but not walking-oriented) neighborhoods.

    But most of the jobs aren’t in the core city– San Diego has an extremely sprawling form. I worked for the largest for-profit employer, which received nominal bus service ending around 7PM that offered me a 10 mile commute that took well over an hour. There was also a commuter rail service with its last run at 6:20PM that ran through canyons far from jobs, shopping, or housing.

    San Diego had a shockingly-heavy degree of car culture and dependence, and that was in comparison to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, hardly known for their multimodal transportation system.

    The idea of walking to visit a restaurant or shop is so novel that people drive into one of its few walkable neighborhoods for a special event where they try it:


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