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Tired of Hearing About Millennials and Cars? Here's Why You Need to Be Paying Attention Anyway

As a Gen X’er, I get peeved sometimes that no one ever seems to be “talkin’ ‘bout my generation.” Everybody always wants to talk about either the Baby Boomers or the Millennials. Especially the Millennials.

And that public discussion of generational trends can get kinda … silly. Either Millennials – who are driving significantly less than previous generations of young people – are car-lovers in waiting, just itching for the economy to recover and their student loans to be paid off so that they can buy that McMansion in the farthest exurbs, or else they are auto-hating, micro-apartment dwelling hipsters who wouldn’t be caught dead in a car (unless, perhaps, it was an Uber).

The reality, as always, is more nuanced. Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer at the Brookings Institution just came out with a fascinating analysis of Census commuting data by metropolitan area that shows that Gen X’ers and Millennials actually look pretty similar in terms of the degree to which they are eschewing the use of cars for commuting. It’s not just craft beer drinkers with fancy mustaches who are finding new ways of getting around.

And discerning the root causes of those generational trends is challenging. The decline in driving among Millennials is likely the result of a combination of changing preferences and changing external circumstances (including the economy). Moreover, some of those changes in external circumstances are temporary, while others likely represent a “new normal."

Next week, we will publish our new report, Millennials in Motion, which attempts to sum up what we know about changing transportation trends among today’s youth and young adults. It is a follow-up to our report of two years ago, Transportation and the New Generation, which documented the reduction in driving among young Americans during the 2000s and their increased use of transit and other non-driving modes of travel.

The constant media coverage of Millennials and their wants, hopes and needs may get a little tiresome, especially to overlooked Gen X’ers like me, but the attention is well deserved for important substantive reasons. For those who care about transportation policy, the study of Millennials is important because:

  • Young people have present-day transportation needs that must be met. Young Americans have different transportation needs than older Americans – needs that often receive little attention from policy-makers and reporters focused on rush-hour highway congestion. It is important to know what Millennials need from the transportation system so that those needs can be adequately served.
  • How Millennials behave now may provide clues about how they will behave in the future. Millennials will almost certainly drive more miles per person than they do now as they reach their peak working and child-rearing years. The key question, however, is whether Millennials will drive more or less than their parents did at the same age. If they don’t, we will likely need to recalibrate our assumptions about future transportation demand.
  • How Millennials behave now may provide clues about how future young people will behave. Millennials’ transportation behaviors may be shaped by economic or other forces that will also affect future generations of young people. Understanding those forces can provide important clues about future transportation needs.
  • Millennials have been early adopters of new technologies and practices. From social media to bikesharing, young Americans have consistently been the first to embrace new technologies and tools with the potential to shape transportation behaviors. By studying how Millennials’ behavior is affected by those new tools, we might learn about their effects once they are adopted by the broader population.

Over the last two years, a great deal of research has been done on Millennials’ changing transportation and lifestyle preferences and behaviors – research that speaks to the questions laid out above. Our new report next week summarizes much of that research, and draws some lessons from what we’ve learned about the Millennials for transportation policy.

There’s a lot we don’t yet know about the reasons for the decline in driving among Millennials (and Gen X’ers) and whether it will last. But our new report argues that we know enough for policy-makers to start factoring recent trends into how we set our transportation priorities.

Generational stereotypes aside, it is that question – of how we retool our transportation system to accommodate and support many Millennials’ expressed desires for more transportation choices and less auto-dependent ways of living – that is the one that really matters. We hope our new report will make a contribution to that debate.