Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Economics, attitude shifts, and the lure of the internet are all likely explanations.
The number of America’s youngest drivers just hit a record low, according to newly published data from the Federal Highway Administration. Roughly 8.5 million people ages 19 and younger had their licenses in 2014, and of those, just a little more than one million were 16 and younger—the lowest number since the 1960s.
Nationally, teen driving has been curving downwards for years, as automakers and transit advocates will inform you with respective consternation and glee. Why teens aren’t scrambling to the DMV as they did in decades past is a matter of debate. One explanation is the recession, which hit young people particularly hard. Without jobs (and with parents’ income stagnated), many teens have less disposable cash to fund a driving habit. There may also be an attitude shift the air: Kids today may not place as much value on automobiles as previous generations did, and may be more open to other forms of transportation (including their parents’ backseats, presumably).
The internet shouldn’t be discounted, either. With so many online platforms over which to communicate, teens might not feel the same urgency to meet up in person as once before. "They don't have to drive,” Nancy McGuckin, a travel behavior analyst, told USA Today in 2013. “They socialize online. They shop online. I think we're being blind if we don't accept that the internet is changing travel."
Most likely, all these factors are pushing teens away from driving. One thing’s for sure: The shift is echoed by broader declines in driving that aren’t entirely tied to the financial climate. This varies from city to city, but as Eric Jaffe wrote in 2015, there’s a new national normal when it comes to America’s roads, and it’s time to act accordingly.