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: 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.