Millennials and our transport future

It’s become a cliché — the twenty-something urban dwellers who never got drivers’ licenses and instead rely on bikes, transit and a good smartphone to get where they need to go. In fact, while there is some truth to the hipster caricature, the reality is more complicated.

My recent analysis of national travel data shows Millennials are driving less than previous generations. Millennials aged 19 to 30 traveled 7 fewer miles per day in cars than members of Gen X had when they were the same ages, marking the first time in our history that car travel, or “automobility,” has declined.

But the downturn in auto use was not accompanied by a substantial uptick in walking, biking, or transit use. Millennials, it seems, are going fewer places.

Why are Millennials traveling less? I found the decline in Millennial automobility can be traced to three sources. First, all Americans used cars less in the late 2000s as economic uncertainty caused a general dampening of consumption and travel. Second, twenty-somethings today have different lifestyles than earlier generations. At the same ages, Millennials are less likely to be employed, partnered, or parents than Gen Xers. Millennials may not need to drive as much if they are not going to work or carting their children around.

But Millennials travel differently than previous generations in ways that can’t be explained by demographics, income, or changing conditions that affect everyone. In fact, those factors only explain 50 percent to 70 percent of the decline in Millennial auto use. The remaining decrease results from factors specific to Millennials. These include increased use of virtual mobility (such as working remotely or shopping online), along with changing attitudes to cars and driving. Increased debt levels among today’s twenty-somethings may also play a role by limiting funds available to own and operate a vehicle.

Why does this matter?

Millennials number 75 million and are now the largest generation in the U.S. Their future travel patterns will affect everything from local congestion to national gasoline demand and greenhouse gas emissions.

My analysis suggests that Millennials are likely to drive more as the effects of the recession recede and they enter the life stages they have delayed (and there is already evidence of an uptick in driving nationally).

However, how much more Millennials will drive is difficult to predict. Government investments in transport, as well as new automobility options from the private sector (think Uber) will influence the growth in Millennials’ travel. This topic is particularly apt as Congress debates a new transportation bill and the huge problem of how to finance our transport system.

Failure to invest in new transport infrastructure and maintain what we currently have will limit the ability of communities to meet the travel needs of Millennials and all other Americans.

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