Atlantic Cities

Young Americans Aren't the Only Ones Driving Much Less Than Their Parents

Young Americans Aren't the Only Ones Driving Much Less Than Their Parents
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In April our Richard Florida reported a trend away from automobile use among young Americans. The news holds particular significance for the United States — where for decades cars have been "a symbol of freedom of independence," as Florida writes — but that doesn't mean it's particularly unique. On the contrary, new research suggests that the real story here isn't about one country's changing tastes but rather a more global generational shift.

In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Transport Geography, a research team led by Tobias Kuhnimhof of the Institute for Mobility Research, in Munich, found a strikingly similar trend away from automobile use among 18- to 29-year-old Germans. The researchers identified two key factors shaping this change: increasing use of public transportation (even among those who own cars), and decreasing driving habits of young men in particular.

To reach their conclusions, Kuhnimhof and colleagues analyzed a handful of travel and economic surveys dating back to the mid-1970s. Consistent with U.S. trends, car use in Germany was on the rise at that time, and remained so into the late 1990s. From 1976 to 1997, across all age groups, the number of cars per thousand Germans rose from roughly 300 to 500, and the share of car trips rose from 45 to 60 percent.

After 1997, however, things changed. Kilometers driven dropped by 20 percent among German youths — even as mileage merely plateaued for those age 30 to 70, and actually increased a bit for those above 70. In other words, write Kuhnimhof and company, without the trend shift by 18- to 29-year-olds, "aggregate travel demand in Germany may still be rising."

Meanwhile mileage spent on public transport has grown among this same subset of the German population. Transit share not only rose among 18- to 29-year-olds from 1997 to 2007, it eclipsed that of 10- to 17-year-olds — a telling reversal, since the driving age in Germany is 18, making the latter a captive ridership. Walking and biking distances also increased slightly for all age groups, though the data were less reliable on this metric.

When the researchers looked at the change more closely they found two critical details. The first is that much of the shift has occurred among young Germans who nevertheless own (or at least have access to) cars. Mode shares didn't differ much from 1976 to 1997, but from 1997 to 2007, car travel decreased while transit and non-motorized share increased for German youths with car access.

Surveys of daily behavior show that everyday car use fell from 2002 to 2008 while everyday transit and cycling rose. At the same time, the share of 18- to 29-year-old car owners who drove at least five days a week dropped from 1997 to 2007 (62 to 47 percent) while the share of owners who used transit at least once a week grew (25 to 40 percent). The researchers found similar trends in long-distance travel from 1997 to 2007, with car trips decreasing and train trips increasing, even controlling for car ownership.

The second notable aspect of the shift away from cars is that it seems to have been limited to young men. In 1976, for instance, there were considerable gender disparities in car travel among German youth. By 1997 the gap had closed for 18- to 24-year-olds, and by 2007 it was nearly gone for 25- to 29-year-olds. The researchers believe the differences have disappeared not because young females are driving more, but because young males are driving less.

So what happened in the late Nineties to trigger this change? In a word, cities. Between 1998 and 2008 there was a 3 percent rise in the share of young Germans living in cities with populations over 100,000. Part of the influx might have come from increased enrollment over that same period at German colleges and universities, which tend to be located in urban areas.

Urban policy had a lot to do with the trend as well, the researchers believe. German municipalities, like other cities around the world, have implemented policies that promote livability: traffic calming via lower speed limits, for one thing, and expanded bike lane infrastructure, for another. Meanwhile public transportation has benefited from integrating ticketing efforts and real-time service information.

And while transit fares rose 42 percent from 1998 to 2008, the cost of vehicle ownership rose more (81 percent for fuel, 12 percent for purchase) and parking policies discouraged driving into the city.

Kuhnimhof and colleagues aren't sure if the trend will keep or if Germany's youth "will adopt the same mobility behavior as past generations at a later stage in their life." The same question is being asked in the United States, and other countries have also noticed signs of diminishing auto interest: in NorwaySweden, and Great Britain, the share of young adults with drivers licenses is on the decline. Whether young car abandoners will become old car owners may be a lingering curiosity right now, but it's sure not a lonely one.

Figures from Kuhnimhof, T., et al. Travel trends among young adults in Germany: Increasing multimodality and declining car use for men. J. Transp. Geogr. (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2012.04.018.

Photo credit: sashagala /Shutterstock

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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