U.S. PIRG Report: Young Americans Dump Cars for Bikes, Buses

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group has been crunching the numbers on travel preferences among young Americans — and the news is not good for auto makers.

Public transit use increased 100 percent among 16-34-year-olds with household incomes above $70,000, according to a new report from PIRG. Photo: ##http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/transportation-and-new-generation##U.S. PIRG##

The report — Transportation and the New Generation — is chock-full of nuggets like this:

Driving is down: “From 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent.”

Biking is up: “In 2009, 16- to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.”

Young people even reported consciously driving less to save the environment. “Sixteen percent of 18- to 34-year-olds polled said they strongly agreed with the statement, ‘I want to protect the environment, so I drive less.’ This is compared to approximately nine percent of older generations.”

The trend toward non-automobile transportation options was even more pronounced among higher-income Americans, notable because this group is less likely to be motivated by economic concerns. “From 2001 to 2009, young people (16- to 34-year-olds) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.”

A number of factors are thought to be contributing to the trend. Some states now require “graduated” driver’s licensing, making young people pass multiple driving tests and hold learner’s permits longer before they earn full privileges. Higher gas prices, obviously, help put owning a car out of reach for many younger Americans, especially as the age group struggles in a less-favorable job market. Finally, technology, specifically smartphones, and their incompatibility with (safe) driving, help make alternatives that much more inviting.

The pervasiveness of the data suggests a larger cultural shift away from automobile use and sprawling communities among younger generations, the report concludes.

Of course, the American political system has yet to catch up to, or even fully comprehend, this sea change.

“Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy—dominated by road building—is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans,” the authors write. “Federal and local governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace. The changing transportation preferences of young people — and Americans overall — throw those assumptions into doubt.”

Data was obtained from the National Household Travel Survey and surveys by Zipcar and the National Association for Realtors.

30 thoughts on U.S. PIRG Report: Young Americans Dump Cars for Bikes, Buses

  1. It was bound to happen with or without smart phones. ‘Burbs are boring, and public transportation really is more convenient on balance. 

  2. It will be harder for young people to be able to afford to drive even if they want to.  How did less well off poor people get around in most of the country, where there was little or no transit?  They drove used cars.

    Their ability to buy the used cars depended on millions of people who were willing to spend a large share of their income on cars to have relatively recent models. Their old cars were sold with many years of life.

    Once new car buyers started keeping cars longer, that chain started to break down.  And with a particularly limited number available due to the near-shutdown in car buying during the recession, used car prices are way up.

    “Since 2008, the average length of overall vehicle ownership — new and used — in the U.S. has steadily increased from about 45 months to 57 months. Polk a corollary trend with the increase longevity is the average age of vehicles on the road is also on the rise, hitting a record of nearly 11 years as of July 2011.  Many analysts have contributed the rise in vehicle sales in recent years to the pent-up demand during the economic recession. “

  3. I think another contributing factor is how Gen Y is a bit more transient than past generations.  They find a job somewhere and they move to be near the job because they can still stay in touch with their friends by social media, email, social gaming, etc.  Makes it much easier to get your commute to walking distance.

  4. When I hear parents complaining about how their teenage kids don’t want to learn to drive, I struggle to stifle my snick and settle for a smirk. 

  5. I’m old enough to remember when one could buy a third-hand car for $100 or so, fuel it with 25-cents-a-gallon gas, keep it running with junkyard parts, and when something expensive broke, repeat the process.  One of the things that General Motors did in the 1920’s was to promote the idea of “trade in/trade up”, generating a stream of ever-cheaper used cars.  They also pioneered the “annual model change” and probably the concept of “planned obsolescence”.  Before GM, we had Henry Ford and the 15 million Model “T” cars his factories cranked out.  People got into the habit of cranking up the “flivver” or hopping into the Chevy rather than waiting for a bus or streetcar.  It’s only been in the last 30-some years, with “gas crunches” and smog control laws that motoring has become noticeably
     more expensive. 

  6. Uggh – great report, but I hate seeing the mention of “alternative transportation” in the report.  I am not alternative for not driving.  I think the term “alternative transportation” is a pejorative, especially for folks who can’t drive (physically, or economically).  I think it is high time people cease using that term!  

  7. I really hope this trend continues.  Though I feel we are going to start running into very-unpleasant bottle necks if our current road infrastructure doesn’t keep up and start accommodating walking, cycling or public transit usage.  Cycling is a good example as it’s a group which generally gets a lot of heat from motorists.  In most of our US cities, the percentage of commuters is less than 1.  This is too low to cause inconvenience to drivers most of the time, yet anyone who cycles enough probably gets harassed at some point.  We won’t likely ever achieve 20 or 30% cycling modal share without drastically modifying the infrastructure to accommodate bikes because most people don’t want to be scared to commute anywhere all the time, but I can see cities reaching 3, 4, or 5% without doing much.  At those levels, it’ll be enough to really cause friction between impatient drivers and cyclists, and you don’t necessarily develop mutual respect just be increasing the size of one of group and doing nothing else, like education, etc.  

  8. I really like the idea of the “graduated” drivers licensing.  People who aren’t prepared to drive shouldn’t be doing so, period.  I remember getting my license at 17 in PA and it took almost no effort and costs next to nothing.  I’m already weary of the way many young college kids drive, let alone 16 year-olds.  There’s definitely some truth to statements you sometimes hear about Europeans being better drivers.  At least in the northern countries, you can’t get a license until 18, it’s much more rigorous and lengthy and costs way more (close to $3000 in Denmark for instance).  

  9. Driving is down and continuing to go down, in North America. However, there are still politicians who look on the automobile as if it were the only means of transportation available. They look at bicycles, public transit, and walking as something foreign. There are even NIMBYs who get real upset if the city decides to put in sidewalks, even if it would help make the neighbourhood a more walkable section of town.

    While North America is experiencing a downturn in driving, it is offset by the upturn in driving in countries like India and China. The increases there just increase the demand, which is why the price of gasoline and other fuels continues to rise, despite North America’s turning to bicycles, public transit, and more efficient automobiles.

  10. Give y’all a hint: make it more difficult for teens to drive (raise the age for permits/licenses, restrict hours, require an adult in the car, etc.) and those people as adults will have developed a different attitude toward the “need” to drive.

    Making ownership, maintenance, and insurance more difficult is lagniappe.

  11. And this trend is happening in the same way and scale in France and UK where I’ve seen similar studies.  I think this year is a tipping point.

  12. I think the car lobby would say, well, this is an artifact of a bad recession, once young people start getting better jobs they’ll be buying cars and driving like everyone else. I don’t agree with that idea, but I’d be interested in how people would respond to it.

  13. The comment deploring the term “alternative transportation” reminded me of when then-Governor Deukmejian referred to passenger trains as “exotic” transportation”.  We still live in an area where (in conventional thinking) “normal people” drive four-wheel motor vehicles, “poor people” ride buses and “tree-hugging vegans” ride bicycles.  But to quote Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-changin'”.

  14. Driving costs more money… and you can’t do it when you’re on a smart phone or drunk. 

  15. I’m 41 and am pleased to be able to bike about to get to work, shopping etc. I find it quite liberating.

  16. http://money.cnn.com/2010/10/14/pf/boomerang_kids_move_home/index.htm

    85% of college seniors make plans to move back home after graduation.

    A more personal story about this phenomenon: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/17/business/economy/as-graduates-move-back-home-economy-feels-the-pain.html

    They call it the boomerang generation. So the young graduate moves back home after graduation, whether or not they find a job (the person in the above story makes $45k a year). Thus, a new household is not formed. Children are not had. This deprives the economy of many new flourishes of activity. Many things are impacted, and one of them is probably VMT. They move home to save money. It’s not surprising they cut back on other things, including driving, as well.

    It is very difficult to say whether or not the decline in auto use among the young is generally by choice. If the economy improves for young people, then we might be able to develop an answer.

  17. From the report:

    “Note: while the number of miles traveledvia public transit has increased, the numberof trips has decreased 16 percent.”So when it says “transit use increased” it just means the average trip is longer.  The number of trips actually went down.  That’s not really consistent with the idea that young people are moving to the city or embracing transit.  It probably reflects the fact that more young people are living at home with their parents in the suburbs (either because they moved back in after college or never left in the first place) and consequently have longer trips to work or school.

  18. Transit ridership is down from a peak in January ’09 as ridership is influenced from year-to-year by things like unemployment and gas prices but the 20 year trend line is up, up and away. 

  19. Well they are talking about the higher income young people too… not driving. By virtue of later household formation by millennials, later marriage age, etc. there will be less VMT because a lot of the VMT is done schlepping kids around and commuting from neighborhoods with good school districts and/or driving kids to good schools. Ultimately more single and couple households will form, and by not having kids, there’s no driving to doctor appointments, day care, softball, etc. Combine that with the global megatrend of greater environmental awareness, more debt, and higher fuel prices and you have a recipe for reduced VMT until the next baby boom happens (if it ever does). 

  20. Smartphones also make it easier to figure out public transportation. Even if you’ve never taken a bus or train before, you can just ask for a routing from one of several apps, go get some chane and just follow the directions. I’ve been taking buses and trains more and more often when I travel rather than taking taxis because my smartphone makes it so much easier.

  21. This is an important change for all people, especially those in our profession…and has not gone unnoticed by the car industry (google MTV and GM). Thanks to my old employer PIRG for highlighting. 

  22. Just another example of the communist re-education scheme hidden inside Agenda 21.

    Mass transit pork-barrel projects have been a HUGE failure everywhere… sooo… HOW does the govt. ‘sell’ something that no one wants?  Simple — you just brainwash gullible teenage kids into believing they have NO right to their own freedom.  After a few generations of brainwashing, the LEMMINGS let govt. control their entire way of life… where they live & the entire transportation system.

    Once the whole populace is locked-into PURE dependence on govt. controlled transportation, its easy to control their every move.

  23. They’re responding some now, but in comparison to the past, it is really quite feeble. It’s not like it used to be.

  24. Yeah, David Hembrow would remark that it really matters how long you’ve been in a certain place. If you live there, you think drivers are awful. I’ve been surprised at the quality of Southern Drivers where I live.

    Maybe I’m in the island of slow time in the country or something, but they are actually mostly very good and very patient. That said, they do make mistakes sometimes. They are nearly always genuine, honest-to-goodness mistakes. I have really not had cases of severe road rage like people talk about.

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