As Youth Driver Licensing Dips Again, A Focus on the Millennials

Tony Dutzik is senior policy analyst with Frontier Group, a non-profit public policy think tank.

In 2011, the percentage of 16-to-24 year olds with driver’s licenses dipped to another new low. Just over two-thirds of these young Americans (67 percent) were licensed to drive in 2011, based on the latest licensing data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and population estimates from the Census Bureau. That’s the lowest percentage since at least 1963.

Source: Licensing statistics from the FHWA’s Highway Statistics series of reports and population estimates from the Census Bureau.

There has been lots of speculation about why fewer young people are getting driver’s licenses (and why even those who do have them seem to be driving less). Is it the economy, which has been particularly brutal for young people lately? Is it the rising cost of gas? Is it the tougher driver’s licensing laws that make it more expensive and difficult to get a license? Is it because young people are too busy cuddling with their iPhones and iPads to get behind the wheel?

There are arguments to be made for any and all of these explanations. But less often is the question asked: Why does it matter that young people just aren’t that into cars anymore?

One important reason it matters is because today’s young people are tomorrow’s main users of our transportation systems. If the useful life of the transportation infrastructure we build today — the highways, light rail lines, bike lanes and sidewalks — is roughly 40 years, that neatly envelops the peak earning and daily travel years of people currently in their late teens and early twenties. If fewer Millennials are driving, that should influence our choices about how we invest in transportation.

The transportation behaviors of the Millennials are doubly important because there are so many of them. That youth driving should be on the decline now is remarkable since there are now more teenagers and young adults in America than there have been in years. Since 1992, America has gained more than 7.3 million 16-to-24 year olds — an increase of 22 percent — but has added only 1.2 million 16-to-24 year old drivers.

Source: Licensing statistics from the FHWA’s Highway Statistics series of reports and population estimates from the Census Bureau.

The key question for anyone thinking about the future of the transportation system is whether today’s young people will continue to drive less as they get older and move on to new stages of life. The answer to that question doesn’t just depend on external factors such as the economy or even the preferences of the Millennials themselves. It also depends on public policy — specifically, the degree to which we are able to transform our transportation policy infrastructure from an effective machine for the building of lots of new roads into an efficient provider of the mix of flexible transportation options that Americans of all generations, but especially young Americans, now crave.

Regardless of the reasons for the recent drop in youth driving, the fact that young people are driving less provides a golden opportunity to rethink our transportation and development policies. It’s time for decision-makers at all levels to take advantage of that opportunity.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Goodbye, James Dean: Young Men Reject America’s Car Obsession

|
Phineas Baxandall is a senior analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. This piece was originally posted on Huffington Post. Just released official data show that Americans drove a billion fewer miles in April 2012 compared to April 2011, despite a slightly better economy. It’s now well known that Americans, led by youth, have been reducing their […]

One Man’s Push to Require Bike Licenses in Oregon

|
Strange news out of Oregon: Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland is reporting on one local businessman’s effort to require additional licensing for cyclists — something that could have a real dampening effect on “America’s Bike Capital.” Maus recently spoke with the the lead proponent of licensing requirement: Buoyed by support from across the state, Portlander […]

Are Engineers Allowed to Speak Up for Reforming Their Profession?

|
In a case that has attracted the attention of the Union of Concerned Scientists, well-known and outspoken civil engineer Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns recently had his professional license challenged by a fellow engineer. The charges were quickly dismissed by the Minnesota licensing board, but the incident has raised questions about engineers’ freedom to speak openly […]

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. 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 […]

Are Millennials Racing to Buy Cars? Nope

|
Crossposted from City Observatory. Hot on the heels of claims that Millennials are buying houses come stories asserting that Millennials are suddenly big car buyers. We pointed out the flaws in the home-buying story earlier this month, and now let’s take a look at the car market. The Chicago Tribune offered up a feature presenting […]