Over the last decade – after 60-plus years of steady increases – the number of miles driven by the average American has been falling. Young Americans have experienced the greatest changes: driving less; taking transit, biking and walking more; and seeking out places to live in cities and walkable communities where driving is an option, not a necessity.
Academic research, survey results and government data point to a multitude of factors at play in the recent decline in driving among young people: socioeconomic shifts, changes in consumer preferences, technological changes, efforts by state governments and colleges to limit youth driving, and more.
Millennials (those born between 1983 and 2000) are the nation’s largest generation, making their transportation needs particularly important. They have the most to gain or lose from the transportation investment decisions we make today, as they will be affected by those investments for decades to come. If Millennials drive fewer miles than previous generations as they age – and if future generations of young people follow suit – America will have an opportunity to reap the benefits of slower growth in driving. These include reduced traffic congestion, fewer deaths and injuries on the roads, reduced expenditures for highway construction and repair, and less pollution of our air and climate.
Several indicators – including continued decreases in per-capita driving across the whole U.S. population, the continued shift away from the use of cars for commuting by Millennials, and the consistency of Millennials’ stated preferences for housing and transportation – suggest that it is unlikely that the trend toward less driving among Millennials during the 2000s has reversed thus far in the current decade. Moreover, many of the factors that have contributed to the recent decline in driving among young Americans appear likely to last. Now is the time for the nation’s transportation policies to acknowledge, accommodate and support Millennials’ demands for a greater array of transportation choices.
Millennials are less car-focused than older Americans and previous generations of young people, and their transportation behaviors continue to change in ways that reduce driving.
- Between 2001 and 2009, the average number of miles driven by 16 to 34 year-olds dropped by 23 percent, as a result of young people taking fewer trips, shorter trips, and a larger share of trips by modes other than driving. Young Americans drive less than older Americans and use public transportation more, and often use multiple modes of travel during a typical day or week.
- In recent years, young people appear to have continued to shift away from driving:
- Census data show that the share of 16 to 24 year-olds traveling to work by car declined by 1.5 percentage points between 2006 and 2013, while the share of young people getting to work by public transportation, on foot or by bicycle, or else working from home, had increased.
- Young people aged 20 to 30 are less likely to move from central cities to suburbs than a decade ago.
- Driver’s licensing among young people has continued to decline. The percentage of high school seniors with driver’s licenses declined from 85 percent to 73 percent between 1996 and 2010, according to the AAA Foundation for Highway Safety, with federal data suggesting that the decline has continued since 2010.
- Young people are not the only Americans who are driving less. The number of miles driven by the average American has declined nearly continuously since 2004. Americans now drive no more in total than we did in 2005 and no more on average than we did at the beginning of President Bill Clinton’s second term in office.
There are many factors at play in the drop in driving among young Americans. Many of those factors – from high gas prices to tougher driver licensing laws – appear likely to last.
- The Great Recession contributed to unemployment and falling incomes among young people. However, driving fell among both young people with jobs and those without during the 2000s, as well as among young people in households of various income levels, demonstrating that the decline in driving was caused by more than just the recession.
- Many of the driving-related socioeconomic changes linked to the recession – such as the increase in the number of Millennials “living in their parents’ basements” – were already taking place for years or decades before the recession began, suggesting that a return to pre-recession patterns is not inevitable as the economy recovers.
- Americans have been getting married later and having children later nearly continuously since the 1960s and have continued to do so during the first years of the recovery.
- While the number of young Americans living with their parents increased sharply during the Recession, the share of young people living in their parents’ homes had been increasing even prior to the recession, and household formation among young people has remained slow during the recovery.
- Millennials reaching driving age today have no living memory of consistently cheap gasoline. Gasoline prices are projected to remain at historically high levels indefinitely, possibly leading Millennials to make long-term transportation and housing decisions that require less driving.
- Several studies have found a generational cohort effect among the Millennials – that is, today’s young people drive less than previous generations of young Americans, even when economic and other factors linked to vehicle ownership or driving are taken into account.
- Millennials consistently report greater attraction to less driving-intensive lifestyles – urban living, residence in “walkable” communities, and openness to the use of non-driving modes of transport – than older generations.
Changing technology and transportation options
- The past decade has seen a technological revolution, with the widespread adoption of the smartphone and social media and, more recently, the creation of a wide variety of new technology-enabled transportation services, from bikesharing to real-time transit tracking apps.
- Young people have been the first to adopt many of these technologies and tools, and have been disproportionately attracted to alternatives such as bikesharing and “ridesourcing” (taxi-like services such as Lyft and Uber).
- Many of these technology-enabled services are relatively new and are currently in use by only a small percentage of people. But some (such as bikesharing and round-trip carsharing) have already been shown to lead to reductions in driving and vehicle ownership. Together, they could lay the groundwork for a new model of mobility that is less dependent on private car ownership.
Other steps that discourage driving
- Graduated driver licensing requirements adopted in recent years by state governments have likely played a small but important role in causing young people to delay or forgo getting a driver’s license, potentially encouraging Millennials to develop less car-dependent transportation habits that they may carry with them as they age.
- Many colleges and universities have put in place deliberate strategies to reduce the number of students with cars on campus. With roughly 40 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds enrolled in higher education, such measures might play a role in reducing youth driving. They may also help young people to develop transportation habits that they carry with them after college.
The time has come for America to rethink its transportation investments to accommodate and encourage the Millennial generation in its desire for less car-intensive lifestyles. Policy-makers should:
- Factor lasting changes in driving habits among young people into transportation planning, starting now, to ensure that transportation investments serve the needs and desires of Millennials both today and in the decades to come.
- Incorporate uncertainty into transportation planning through the use of scenario analysis and other tools that ensure transportation investment decisions are consistent with the possibility that driving will continue to stagnate.
- Take advantage of the opportunity presented by Millennials’ changing transportation preferences by expanding access to an array of transportation options, including public transportation, bicycling and walking. Reducing vehicle travel this way will save money by heading off the need to spend money on highway expansion, which currently costs the nation about $27 billion per year. Doing so will also ease congestion, reduce emissions of pollutants that harm public health and alter the climate, and save lives through avoided vehicle crashes.
For these reasons, America should not just accommodate Millennials’ desire to drive less, but actively encourage it. Cities across the nation are leading the way by expanding public transportation options, building new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and opening the doors for an array of innovative new technology-based transportation services. State and federal governments should assist and promote those efforts, while changing transportation policies and investment strategies that undermine the development of walkable communities with access to a variety of transportation options.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.