Evelyn Blumenberg, the chair of urban planning at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs, doesn't buy the theory that Millennials are traveling less because they're using technology more. She's seen the recent reports making these claims, but she's also seen a strong case study in the form of her own teenage children. "They are completely reliant on their phones," she says. "But they also travel a lot."
Personal anecdotes aside, there's also the data. As part of a massive study on Millennial travel behavior published last year [PDF], Blumenberg and collaborators analyzed national travel behavior from 1990, 2001, and 2009. They concluded that the recent recession explained most of the decline in youth travel, and that the only effect technology seemed to have — if there were any effect at all — was to increase it.
"I don't know why we're so focused on the idea that technology is going to necessarily be a substitute for travel," says Blumenberg. "In our models, it does not prove to be the case."
The connection between driving habits and technology has always been a conceptually tricky one. On one hand, telecommuting could eliminate some drives to work and real-time transit data could entice people off the roads. On the other hand, e-commerce can actually increase congestion, a good online review can encourage a trip into town, and ride-sharing services can turn everyone with a car into a taxi driver. Our Emily Badger captured this curious link best: "people are driving less because of … apps?"
In their research, Blumenberg and colleagues found that, over time, Millennials were indeed traveling less than previous generations had at the same age: taking 4 percent fewer trips and going 18 percent fewer miles. But when young people did travel, they tended to travel by car. Not only did most young people drive to work alone, but the commute share of young solo drivers (below, in light purple) actually rose between 2001 and 2009:
The results with social trips weren't much different. Carpooling was much more common than single-occupancy driving in social situations, but cars were still the clear mode of choice. And while alternative transport modes (below, blue, green, and yellow) did gain some ground among young people over the years, the same was true for older people:
As for technology, daily Internet use — as measured by the two most recent national transportation surveys — had no effect on travel in 2001 and was associated with an increase in miles traveled across all ages in 2009. In other words, Millennial or not, technology encouraged travel rather than replacing trips. For the average person across the country, more travel means more driving.
"I think there's a sense that we want to be optimistic about reduced travel and trying to cut down on those environmental problems," she says. "But I think we don't want a false sense."
The true situation might seem discouraging, but Blumenberg and her planning students also see it as a challenge. After all, it isn't travel per se that's damaging to metro areas, it's car travel in particular. If urban planners can use technology to promote alternative transport modes or at least multi-modal systems, cities will be better off for Millennials and other generations to come.
In many environments, cars provide the greatest access, Blumenberg says. "It puts the burden on planners to try to change environments in such a way that using those alternative modes of travel start to approximate the kind of accessibility you have with an automobile."