Why Young Americans Are Driving So Much Less Than Their Parents
“Unfortunately for car companies,” Jordan Weissmann noted at TheAtlantic.com a couple weeks back, “today's teens and twenty-somethings don't seem all that interested in buying a set of wheels. They're not even particularly keen on driving.”
Now a major new report from Benjamin Davis and Tony Dutzik at the Frontier Group and Phineas Baxandall, at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, documents this unprecedented trend across a wide variety of indicators.
Their two big findings about young people and driving:
- The average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) in the U.S. decreased by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, falling from 10,300 miles per capita to just 7,900 miles per capita in 2009.
- The share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased by 5 percentage points, rising from 21 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Young people are also making more use of transit, bikes, and foot power to get around. In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001. They walked to their destinations 16 percent more often, while their passenger miles on transit jumped by 40 percent.
Part of the reason for this shift is financial. The report calculates the average cost of owning and operating a car as north of $8,700 dollars a year, and that was before gasoline passed $4.00 per gallon. In the wake of the financial crisis, many underemployed young people have decided that they either can’t afford a car or would rather spend their money on other things. The report cites a Zipcar/KRC Research survey, which found that 80 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds stated that the high cost of gasoline, parking, and maintenance made owning a car difficult.
But money doesn’t explain everything. Sixteen to 34-year-olds in households with incomes of more than $70,000 per year are increasingly choosing not to drive as well, according to the report. They have increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.
The shift away from the car is part and parcel of a new way of life being embraced by young Americans, which places less emphasis on big cars or big houses as status symbols or life's essentials. In my book The Great Reset, I called it the New Normal. “Whether it’s because they don’t want them, can’t afford them, or see them as a symbol of waste and environmental abuse,” I wrote, “more and more people are ditching their cars and taking public transit or moving to more walkable neighborhoods where they can get by without them or by occasionally using a rental car or Zipcar.”
A study by J.D. Power and Associates, most well-known for their quality rankings of cars, confirms what young people tell me: After analyzing hundreds of thousands of online conversations on everything from car blogs to Twitter and Facebook, the study found that teens and young people in their early twenties have increasingly negative perceptions “regarding the necessity of and desire to have cars.”
"There’s a cultural change taking place," John Casesa, a veteran auto industry analyst told the New York Times in 2009. “It’s partly because of the severe economic contraction. But younger consumers are viewing an automobile with a jaundiced eye. They don’t view the car the way their parents did, and they don’t have the money that their parents did.”
A survey by the National Association of Realtors conducted in March 2011 revealed that 62 percent of people ages 18-29 said they would prefer to live in a communities with a mix of single family homes, condos and apartments, nearby retail shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as workplaces, libraries, and schools served by public transportation. A separate 2011 Urban Land Institute survey found that nearly two-thirds of 18 to 32-year-olds polled preferred to live in walkable communities.
Younger Americans are also using technology to substitute for driving, connecting with friends and family online, substituting Facebook, Twitter, Skype, or FaceTime interactions for in-person visits and using online shopping and e-commerce in place of driving to and from grocery and retail stores, the report notes.
For generations of Americans, car ownership was an almost mandatory rite of passage—a symbol of freedom and independence. For more and more young people today, a car is a burden they no longer wish to carry.