Shifting demographics matter, but shifting attitudes may matter more.
The ongoing discussion about Millennial driving trends is not about whether they’re declining, but why. It’s clear to all that young people are driving less today than they did in the past. But the reasons for these shifts in car use are what remain locked in seemingly endless debate.
Two theories lead the charge. The first is that demographic or economic factors are primarily to blame. Since so many Millennials are out of work or delaying the start of family life, they have less daily need to drive. That certainly makes sense. The second idea suggests that young people fundamentally have a different attitude toward cars than previous generations did at that age, instead preferring to live in the city longer and travel by multiple alternative modes. That’s also a logical conclusion, if a bit harder to quantify.
The truth might be a little of this, a little of that, and even some of the other. That’s the takeaway from a new analysis of Millennial driving habits from transport scholar Noreen McDonald of the University of North Carolina. Writing in the Journal of the American Planning Association, McDonald attributes 10 to 25 percent of the driving decline to changing demographics, 35 to 50 percent to attitudes, and another 40 percent to the general downward shift in U.S. driving habits.
Taken together, these trends lend credence to the idea that Millennials are increasingly “going nowhere.”
Both main theories are true
There’s no shortage of attempts to explain Millennial driving behavior. What makes McDonald’s work especially useful and compelling is that she compared the travel patterns of Millennials (born between 1979 and 1990, by her definition) with those of Generation X (born 1967-1978) at the same age. So she looked at driving data (both trips and miles) from tens of thousands of individuals in 1995, 2001, and 2009 alike.
The cross-generational method is critical for determining reasons for the driving shifts. If demographics and economics were responsible for the decline, for example, then one would still expect an employed 25-year-old Gen X’er in 1995 to have similar car habits as an employed 25-year-old Millennial in 2009. But if generational attitudes are to blame, one would expect those numbers to diverge even with the underlying demographic factor holding steady.
Indeed, McDonald found both factors in play. Today’s young people certainly have a different demographic profile than the previous generation. Take 25-to-30 year olds. The share of those employed fell from 82 percent in 1995 to 73 percent in 2009—a nine-point dip. The drop was even greater for those who’d formed a household by that age: 16 points. Meanwhile, the share living in urban areas rose from 69 to 77 percent. All these indicators support the role of demographics in decreased driving; many Millennials simply lack the need or resources for cars.
But driving changes occurred when controlling for demographics, too. Let’s stick with 25-to-30 year olds and look at average daily driving mileage. Young people this age who were unemployed in 2009 drove 3.7 miles less a day than did young people who were that same age in 1995. The downward shift held for those who had a job (-7.1 miles), lived with their parents (-6.2), formed a household (-7.9), and resided in the city (-6.2) or even the country (-8.1). So demographics mattered, but a general mindset toward driving mattered as well.
Our analysis demonstrates that both of the theories about the causes of the decline in driving among Millennials are true: Declining travel is due to changing attitudes and perspectives about driving as well as lifestyle changes such as increased schooling, decreased employment, and delay in marriage and childbearing.
A few other notable trends
McDonald’s next step was assigning a relative impact of these causes on the decline in driving. As mentioned above, demographics accounted for 10 to 25 percent of the age-group decline between generations, or 1 to 2 miles a day (below, in dark gray). Attitude toward cars counted for 35 to 50 percent, or 2 to 4 miles a day (below, light gray). And the general decline in American vehicle mileage accounted for 40 percent, or 3.2-miles (medium gray):
A few other trends spotted by the research are worth noting:
- As expected, driving declined for all age groups between 1995 and 2009. Unexpectedly, McDonald found that for ages 19 to 30 it peaked circa 1995—suggesting, contrary to some accounts, that the decline “is not exclusive to the Millennial generation” and actually began with younger Gen X’ers.
- Also surprising, McDonald found little difference in multi-modal travel (public transit, biking, and walking) in 2009 compared with that of 1995. If Millennials really prefer these options more than Gen X, it isn’t showing up clearly in these numbers.
- Young people in 2009 made fewer total trips than the previous generation, as opposed to shorter trips. Take 25-to-30 year olds: in 1995 they averaged 9.4 miles a trip, and in 2009 they averaged 10 miles a trip. A closer analysis showed Millennials were shedding work and personal business trips (as expected by a lower employment rate) as well as some social trips.
This analysis provides evidence of a long-term decrease in automobility that started in the late 1990s with younger members of Gen X and has continued with the Millennial generation. The decrease in driving has not been accompanied by an increase in other modes of travel or a decline in average trip length, meaning that younger Americans are increasingly going fewer places.
So there you have it. McDonald’s work isn’t likely to put the debate about Millennial driving habits to rest, but it does add a highly informed layer to the discussion. And her advice about what planners and cities can do while all the data points find their place—encourage alternative travel modes, and improve forecasts about driving trends—is sound regardless of the exact reasons behind the shifts.