Millennials Are Driving Less – And Will Continue To Do So As They Age
Today USPIRG released a new report showing that “the driving boom is over” – we’ve hit peak driving and now we’ll be seeing a long-term shift away from driving. In turn that means we need to be shifting transportation spending away from roads and toward transit and passenger rail, including high speed rail. This blog has covered that trend extensively, though the USPIRG report is particularly valuable and detailed in its assessment.
One argument you sometimes hear against this, however, is that the shift is temporary. The recession is one factor in the “the shift won’t last” view. But another is the notion that Millennials, who are the largest generation in the country, will start driving more once they settle down and have families.
Over at Streetsblog DC, Tanya Snyder pushes back against that claim. Millennials may wind up driving more than they do now, she says, but it will still overall be a smaller amount of driving than we saw in late 20th century generations. Two of her main points:
Let’s start with car culture. Young people now say that losing their computer or their cell phone would be a far greater loss than losing their car, if they even have one. Baby boomers still say losing their car would be the most disastrous. And millennials just haven’t inherited that excitement over cars or the desire to spend their time tending to them. They don’t see cars as a hobby, just a way to get around — and an increasingly inconvenient one. According to the report, “less than 15 percent of millennials describe themselves as ‘car enthusiasts’ as opposed to 30 percent of baby boomers.”
Meanwhile, we just can’t sprawl much more. We’re running out of room to build new highways, and we’re running out of money faster. The Highway Trust Fund, as we’ve endlessly reported, is in serious crisis, expected to go bankrupt in 2015. And household economics prevent another major rush to buy cars: U.S. households had 1.24 vehicles per driver in 2006, a number which has dropped only slightly and is unlikely to rise again.
Snyder also points out weaknesses with the “driverless cars” argument and the ongoing increase in gas prices. She also notes that Millennials still prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods with shorter travel times, something that’s incompatible with a lot of driving.
All of that makes sense to me. I would add one more factor. Millennials have been hit harder than any other generation by the recession and its aftermath. Others have been hit hard too but they had more time and more support to build a cushion. Millennials haven’t, and so they are necessarily becoming much more cautious with how they spend the money they do have. All of the factors that Snyder describes are reasons why Millennials will choose to spend their money on something other than cars and driving if it can be helped. If they do have to buy a car, they’ll try and make sure it lasts as long as possible, and drive it as sparingly as possible.
More importantly, Millennials would really like an alternative. So too will Boomers once they start becoming elderly and realize that they can’t or don’t want to drive everywhere either. Already you see in many American cities that some of the most vocal transit activists are seniors who now depend on buses and trains to get around. More Boomers will join them as they realize they can’t drive around like they used to.
In short, all the pieces are there for the shift away from driving to continue, and for public support to grow for spending a lot more money on transit. Republicans will block the way as long as they can, but eventually, the tide will sweep away their opposition to transit. We can only hope that they don’t do too much damage before that happens.