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Most are drivers, but more are becoming car-less over time.

The ongoing debate about why young Americans are driving less than they once did, and whether or not that trend will continue, often treats all Millennials as the same. Either they drive or they don’t. Either they’ve embraced the multi-modal mindset of city life or they’re just biding time until they become their car-reliant suburban parents.

The truth is that young people, just like actual people, belong to a mobility spectrum ranging from driving-heavy to driving-lite. Right now that scale is still strongly tipped toward the driving-heavy end, even among Millennials. But young people have slid away from car habits in recent years, if only modestly, according to new research from incoming Rutgers planning scholar Kelcie Ralph.

For her UCLA dissertation, Ralph analyzed national travel surveys taken in 1995, 2001, and 2009, focusing on respondents ages 16 to 36 in each year. That data led Ralph to identify four types of young American travelers:

  • Drivers: 79 percent. These are young people who do the great majority of their traveling by car, averaging about 24 miles a day across four trips.
  • Trekkers: 3 percent. These are Drivers who rack up twice as many miles a day on the same number of trips, thus contributing a disproportionate share of traffic and emissions.
  • Multi-modals: 4 percent. Multi-modals make anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of their trips by walking, biking, riding transit, or using some non-car travel mode.
  • Car-less: 14 percent. These young folks travel exclusively by a mode other than automobile—a pattern that can mean an unrestricted car-free lifestyle in cities but less overall access to jobs and goods outside them.
Ralph, 2015

“What was striking was no matter how I fiddled with different justifications—changing how I measure transit use, changing how I measured automobile access—these categories were really robust,” Ralph tells CityLab.

During the 1995 to 2009 study period, the shares of young Multi-modals and Car-less types increased, while those of young Drivers and Trekkers types decreased, according to Ralph’s analysis. Drivers fell four points over that time, from 83 to 79 percent, while the Car-less rose an equal amount, from 10 to 14 percent. Multi-modals jumped a point, from 2.5 to 3.5 percent.

Ralph, 2015

That general pattern more or less held true even when splitting all young people into different age groups of 16-19, 20-26, and 26-36:

Ralph, 2015

The big question for city policy is why the shift away from driving, however slight, is occurring among young people. Using the same datasets as Ralph, transport scholar Noreen McDonald of the University of North Carolina recently offered the clearest explanatory breakdown yet. McDonald attributes 10 to 25 percent of the driving decline to demographics (e.g. employment or marriage status), another 35 to 50 percent to attitudes (e.g. Millennials love cities!), and 40 percent to downward trend of all U.S. vehicle mileage.

Ralph’s own work filters the explanations through the four traveler types. For Drivers, money had the biggest impact, with young people in the lowest two income quintiles most likely to drop out of the group between 1995 and 2009. Young people living within metro areas were actually more likely to be Drivers than those living outside, though that finding didn’t hold up in the biggest cities. The propensity of being a Driver went down as density—and presumably better transit service or walkability—went up.

Money mattered to the Car-less, too, with young people in the lowest two income quintiles (or those without jobs) more likely to become part of this group over time. Some of that shift was the result of city life, with young people living at high densities like New York more likely to be Car-less. But some was a far more discouraging trend of youths outside metro areas losing all travel access and taking fewer overall trips. No surprise that young people were more likely to be Multi-modals as a metro area’s size and density increased.

Ralph, 2015

Ralph knows that many urbanists aren’t going to like her results: The sight of so many Millennials in the Driver category runs counter to popular accounts of young people flocking to cities and ditching their cars. Responding puts her in a tricky spot. On one hand, she hopes that Americans will become more multi-modal and that cities will use her findings to increase transit access throughout the metro area. (“It’s probably the single most important thing,” she says.) On the other hand, she’s bound to report the car-heavy data as it stands.

“In presenting this, I actually get a lot of angry question from Millennials themselves,” says Ralph. “They’ll say: Well, I own a bike, and I’m happy and confident, and I’m able to meet my needs. I say: I agree with you, and that’s my experience as well! What I’m saying is we’re few and far between. Not to devalue your experience or my experience, but that does not reflect most people.”

It’s a painful reality for cities, but one that’s crucial not to forget.

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