Millennials Are Driving Less – And Will Continue To Do So As They Age

May 14th, 2013 | Posted by

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.

  1. joe
    May 14th, 2013 at 23:08
    In a perfect world, it would be torn up — the asphalt and concrete, and the bed of crushed stone below — right down to the bare earth. From that fresh start a new and stable highway would grow. But this is the Beltway, and closing down whole sections of it would tie one of the most congested regions in the nation into a Gordian knot.

    The best of roads might last 40 or 50 years, perhaps longer if set in a forgiving climate. But once age gets the best of a road, smacking a fresh coat of asphalt on it is like pinning leaves on a dead tree.

    Simply put, the underbed of a roadway develops potholes very much like the ones seen on the surface. That process of erosion advances with the age of the road, and new asphalt or concrete becomes a waste of time and money.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    From YouTube back in 2009:

    How the future was supposed to look in 1954:

    A more recent promotion for an Interstate highway–and it’s notable that the two people are a couple of old white guys.

    jimsf Reply:

    haha from the first one “We’re running out of roads! We didn’t dream big enough!”

  2. Robert
    May 15th, 2013 at 06:33

    Is the $2.286 billion in Brown’s proposed budget money from the 1A funds, or is that general fund money in addition to the 1A funds?


    VBobier Reply:

    I’ll see if I can fix this, for future reference don’t use the html part, just use the .jpg part in an html link and learn how to make one, it’s not too hard to do. $2.286 billion in Brown’s proposed budget money for HSR.

  3. Robert
    May 15th, 2013 at 06:35

    Lets try that again:

  4. jimsf
    May 15th, 2013 at 08:53

    Maybe this is the answer for california. Remove all the existing cities and replace them with these actually they could building one of these in a black spot like the high desert and the milinieals will love it.

  5. Derek
    May 15th, 2013 at 09:05

    We should have been shifting money away from roads long ago. A road is overbuilt, representing a waste of money, if it never gets congested.

  6. Reality Check
    May 15th, 2013 at 11:41

    Kings County fights for its lawsuit against high-speed rail

    Kings County opponents of high-speed rail are battling the project’s leadership to avoid merging the county’s lawsuit into a case on the issuance of bonds to build tracks through the San Joaquin Valley.

    Hanford farmer John Tos, Hanford homeowner Aaron Fukuda and the Kings County Board of Supervisors have a court date coming up in Sacramento on May 31 for the lawsuit they filed against the California High- Speed Rail Authority in 2011. That lawsuit alleges the high-speed rail project, as currently proposed, violates the requirements of Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.

    But in March, the rail authority filed its own court action, essentially throwing down the gauntlet to anyone wanting to challenge the state’s legal authority to issue bonds for the statewide project. The bonds would include money needed for the start of construction this summer in the Fresno-Madera area.

    A Sacramento Superior Court judge could decide Thursday if the two cases will be joined or will continue separately. The California Attorney General’s Office, representing the rail authority, wants the cases combined. Attorneys for the Kings County interests are fighting to keep their case separate.

    “One is about issuing the bonds, the other is about using the money from the bonds,” said Stuart Flashman, an Oakland attorney representing the Kings County plaintiffs. “We think there’s a lot to be lost by putting the two together.”

    Keith Saggers Reply:

    What is your point?

    Nathanael Reply:

    Reality Check doesn’t usually have a point. Just reprints press releases and articles in the media. A sort of aggregator.

  7. Alon Levy
    May 15th, 2013 at 12:21


    People sometimes tell the truth in the polls but then lie during the actual election. The chatter on SkyscraperPage is that it means that instead of spending carbon tax proceeds on SkyTrain, British Columbia will make it harder to obtain funding for new lines and make Vancouver (which wants a subway under Broadway to UBC) compete for money with Surrey (which wants elevated lines extending the system from its current King George terminus).

    Not to worry, though. If the region builds the better of the two options, i.e. Broadway, SkyTrain will be on track to overtake BART + Muni Metro combined as the West Coast’s busiest rail network.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Oh, and here is what the gasbags do on fracking:

    Long story short: they will poison the province’s rivers in order to export more gas to Americans.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Everybody and their brother had the same idea. Well the domestic producers don’t have to export it. The price of natural gas has dropped. If Seattle had Chicago weather they might be interested in it. Fracking gas in Ohio costs about the same as fracking gas in British Columbia.

  8. Brian_FL
    May 15th, 2013 at 16:12

    O/T both senators from California sent the Surface Transportation Board a letter requesting that the STB consider the CHSRA timeline for construction and letting contracts this summer.$FILE/234244.pdf

    Hopefully the STB will act quickly, however I doubt it will because they have already stated that all three of the board members believe that the CA HSR project does fall under their review. I would be very surprised if construction starts by end of summer. If one reads the public comments submitted to the STB on their website, it appears that there are some concerns that the board will have to address. One of them is financing (which is a big part of the STB’s role), another is impact on existing railroads during the IOS period whereby Amtrak will operate over new track and existing freight railroad track.

  9. Emma
    May 16th, 2013 at 00:52

    Riding the Pacific Surfliner. The other train I rode before that was the Coast Starlight and compared to that, the Surfliner was quite heavenly, warm, comfortable, wifi and South of LA, it was quite a fast train. Then somewhere south of Orange County, it felt as if I was commuting with a light rail. Very slow, but still better than cattle express Starlight.

    Anyway, what I noticed was how many 20-somethings were riding the train frequently at all times. As I assumed, many were college students who used the train to commute during weeks and weekends from college to home. Again, as I said. If there was a way to speed up the SD-OC section, the Surfliner could easily beat cars. To me, the LOSSAN improvements can’t come fast enough.

  10. Neil Shea
    May 20th, 2013 at 08:19
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