Millennials put brakes on the car culture

Millennials aren't as interested in joining the traffic jams, surveys show. Among the reasons: Too little money to buy a car, too little time to shop for one.

Millennials aren't as interested in joining the traffic jams, surveys show. Among the reasons: Too little money to buy a car, too little time to shop for one.

When Yotam Auz climbs behind the wheel of his 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, he often thinks he’d rather be on foot.

Like many millennials, the 26-year-old will put pedal to metal for groceries, little trips around the metro area or to go to work during the winter or on bad weather days. Otherwise he prefers to leave the Jeep parked and commute on MARTA or walk to pubs and eateries within walking distance of his West Midtown home.

“To be honest with you, I would love to get rid of my car altogether,” said Auz, who moved from his native Israel to Atlanta four years ago. “But I can’t because Atlanta’s public transportation is not as broad as other cities and I don’t want to be that jerk that bothers everyone for a ride. But I moved to the city to feel like I live in a city.”

Recent Studies from AutoTrader. com, the NPD Group, the Atlanta Regional Commission and others have found that the love affair with cars that defined much of America for the past five decades is eluding millennials. That could have major implications for carmakers, city planners and developers — including those in metro Atlanta.

A job market that is paying less than it did for young workers in the past and record-breaking student debt is making car ownership out of reach for many millennials.

For carmakers, that means creating marketing that is more practical than aspirational. Instead of flaunting how quickly a car can zip from 0 mph to 60 mph or the smoothness of its ride over long distances, car manufacturers must lure millennials — defined as young adults from 18 to 34 — by focusing on mileage and tech amenities such as bluetooth phone connections or text via voice command, experts said.

Car-less millennials also could potentially nudge Atlanta into a more walkable and better transit-oriented city. Millennials’ desire to live intown is one factor behind a surge in apartment construction. It’s also played a role in some employers’ real estate decisions, such as insurer State Farm’s move to build a massive project near the Perimeter MARTA station.

In a report on the perspectives of millennials in metro Atlanta, the ARC found changing the area’s car culture is key to bringing the next generation to the city.

“If you want to attract young people, you have to have transit,” the report said of one respondent. “They are not interested in remaining in their cars.”

Even suburban mixed-use developments are getting into the act. Alpharetta’s recently opened Avalon live-work-play community combined shopping and residential in one site in part to attract millennials.

A ‘new normal’

“I suspect that the attitudes that we are seeing now are becoming the new normal,” said David Portalatin, an auto analyst for NPD Group.

There are caveats. Researchers have found that millennials’ car-buying habits start to resemble Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers if they have children or as they become more economically stable. Just how much millennials have abandoned the love of cars also depends on the region and access to public transportation.

Still the experts said their surveys of millennials found that they tend to buy their first car at a later age than in previous generations and increasingly prefer to work in areas that offer robust public transportation.

And in a major break with tradition, anywhere from 31 percent to 36 percent of younger millennials have shown no interest in getting their driver’s licenses when they turn 16, the legal age to drive in the U.S. without adult supervision, according to NPD Group, a New York-based consumer research firm and Atlanta-based AutoTrader. released a study last year on millennials and car buying. AutoTrader is owned by Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One of the big reasons, the surveys found, is time.

“They told us they … were too busy,” said Isabelle Helms, research and market intelligence for Cox Automotive. “They are the over-scheduled generation.”

That could create a challenge for the car industry in the future. While vehicle sales have soared in the past few years because of an improving economy, Americans also are keeping cars longer — on average about 11 years — because vehicles are better made.

Millennials, the biggest generation since Baby Boomers, will be expected to pick up the slack when the current buying spree ends. The problem is that large numbers are attracted to older vehicles because of their lower cost and good quality, opening up the potential to hurt future new car sales.

“The American consumer has fundamentally changed the way we value older vehicles,” Portalatin said.

Theories about millennials’ lack of enthusiasm for cars abound. The top theory is economic: A lot of millennials just can’t afford cars, researchers said.

More debt, less time

They carry more student debt from college than past generations and entered the workforce at a time when employee salaries are depressed. That has made qualifying for a car loan and negotiating a payment plan they can handle more difficult.

“These guys aren’t getting on their feet as fast as earlier generations,” said Mark Strand, manager of industry intelligence for Cox Automotive.

Millennials also are living at home longer and car-share to meet their needs. Some have jobs that allow them to telecommute and use ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft or Zipcar when they have to meet face-to-face with someone or for other needs such as grocery shopping.

The need to get in a car and spend time with family or friends has been replaced for some by texting, social media and a phone that’s on 24/7. Millennials grew up talking endlessly to each other on phone or laptop screens, a cultural change that made cars less important.

Ford’s tech package lured millennial Katie Lazzara, 26, to purchase a 2012 Ford Escape. While her parents bought her a car at 16, the Escape was her first adult car purchase and its Microsoft Sync system for phone and other tech accessories stood out.

She missed the tech recently when she rented a car that lacked bluetooth for her phone.

“I usually listen to music on my phone and had to settle for the radio because it didn’t have bluetooth,” she said. “My car isn’t even a nice model, but it has bluetooth.”