(Download the slides from the 4/5/12 Transportation and the New Generation webinar here.)
From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the century, something changed: Americans began driving less. By 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004. (See Figure ES-1.)
Figure ES-1: Vehicle-Miles Traveled Per Capita Peaked in 2004
The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 and 2009, the average 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. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting – even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons – higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences – all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.
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. The time has come for transportation policy to reflect the needs and desires of today’s Americans – not the worn-out conventional wisdom from days gone by.
America’s young people are decreasing the amount they drive and increasing their use of transportation alternatives.
Young people’s transportation priorities and preferences differ from those of older generations.
The trend toward reduced driving among young people is likely to persist as a result of technological changes and increased legal and financial barriers to driving.
Changes in driving laws: From 1996 to 2006, every state enacted Graduated Drivers’ Licensing (GDL) laws. GDL laws, which are designed to keep young people safe, also make obtaining a driver’s license more challenging. Young people must now take more behind-the-wheel training (which is more expensive), fulfill additional requirements for permits, and once they are allowed to drive, they are often restricted to driving in the daytime without passengers. GDL laws are likely to remain in effect – and continue to be a deterrent to young people to apply for licenses – because they have been successful in keeping young drivers safe.
Increased fuel prices: Increased fuel prices have made driving more expensive, reducing the frequency with which people – especially younger people with less disposable income – travel in cars. The average cost for filling up the tank in 2001 was $1,100 for the year (in 2011 dollars). With gasoline prices soaring since then, filling up the same tank today costs $2,300. While gasoline prices often fluctuate, they are unlikely to return to the low levels of 1980s or 1990s. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s projections, gas prices are expected to increase by 26 percent from 2010 to 2020.
The recession has played a role in reducing the miles driven in America, especially by young people. People who are unemployed or underemployed have difficulty affording cars, commute to work less frequently if at all, and have less disposable income to spend on traveling for vacation and other entertainment. The trend toward reduced driving, however, has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially.
America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw that assumption into doubt. 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. It is time for policy-makers to consider the implication of changes in driving habits for the nation’s transportation infrastructure decisions and funding practices, and consider a new vision for transportation policy that reflects the needs of 21st century America.
* NOTE: Page 2 of the printed version of the report presents the 40 percent increase in transit passenger-miles as an overall increase among 16- to 34-year-olds. It is a per capita figure, as is presented on page 10 in the body of the report. 7/16/12