a photo of a young woman in a Fiat 500 car.
The car-free generation? Just wait: Millennial's transportation habits don't look that different from predecessors over time. Damian Dovarganes/AP

Despite the buzz around ride-hailing and bike lanes, car ownership among younger Americans looks a lot like that of older Americans.

Millennials, so famous for killing things, were poised to deliver the death blow to America’s auto addiction. We were supposed to put off our driver’s licenses, choose Lyfts over car loans, and settle in cities rather than suburbs, using mass transit and bike lanes instead of the traditional private car. We were supposed to make greener choices than our gas-guzzling older kin.

But research based on years of data rather than trend stories and anecdotes paints a different picture of how Generation Avocado Toast chooses to get around, compared to its predecessors.

A working paper posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research this week offers an empirical examination of Millennial car ownership and driving practices against the backdrop of earlier generations. Controlling for factors like marriage and living in city, it finds that Americans born between 1980 and 1984 are just as likely to own cars compared to, say, their parents’ cohort. What’s more, when driving habits are measured in terms of vehicle-miles traveled, some Millennials really are the worst.

Authors Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics and the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at MIT, and Elizabeth Murphy, now a project manager at Genser Energy and a former graduate assistant at MIT, consulted data from five editions of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Household Transportation Survey, as well as corresponding demographic data from the Census Bureau and American Community Survey.

Together, these sources captured transportation habits, geography, generational age brackets, and lifestyles that might influence a person’s transportation choices, such as marriage and kids. (All of the confounding variables included in the analysis are below.)

They then categorized even sets of individual and household-level data by generation, the keys being Baby Boomers (defined as birth years 1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1979), and Millennials (1980-1984—only the the older echelon was chosen so that the same life stages could be compared across generations). Using a regression analysis technique, they tested how many vehicles per household each generational set tended to buy, and how many vehicle-miles they traveled in a given year. All of those life-stage, preferential, and circumstantial variables were controlled for—again, with an eye towards whether Millennials really differ from other generations in their relationship towards cars.

Their findings? If you don’t control for any of those external or internal factors, the popular wisdom is true: Millennials own approximately 0.4 fewer vehicles per household than the average Baby Boomer by the same stage of life, the authors show. On the sole basis of generational identity, younger folks appear to be less interested in cars.

But the story changes once they started layering in other factors. With all of the 13 confounding variables controlled for, the “Millennial preference” towards fewer cars essentially vanishes. Life choices and geography are the more decisive factors: Millennials are more likely to live in urban areas, are less likely to marry by age 35, and actually have slightly larger families relative to previous generations—choices that produce a net result of a slight reduction of vehicles per household (less than 1 percent), the study shows.

Running the same tests to see how annual vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) stacks up by generation, the authors find a similar pattern: an uncontrolled comparison suggests that Millennials are traveling less than their predecessors were by the same age. But when factors like educational attainment, marital status, number of children, and whether they’ve settled in a city are factored in, it turns out Snake People actually rack up slightly more VMT than Baby Boomers did.

In sum, if there’s been any shift in how younger Americans relate to personal cars, this study suggests that it is trivial.  

Like all studies—especially as-yet unpublished studies, like this one—there are limitations and caveats here. Younger Millennials (those born after 1984) might still bring about the car-free revolution we’ve been promised. That cohort is not included here, because they’re not quite old enough yet to be properly compared to other generations. Also, this analysis is U.S.-focused; it says nothing about how transportation choices in other countries with different socioeconomic stratifications and generational expectations might have shifted. And it’s also just one study—the number of economists arguing about whether Millennials really prefer cities over suburbs could probably fill a ballroom.

But the tidy story about how Millennials hated cars was never airtight. As the economy strengthened in the years following the recession, the first holes in the narrative appeared; as younger people grew older and more financially secure, they were drawn, like so many Americans before them, toward the driver’s seat. With gas prices low and suburbia still ascendent, the economic case for driving yourself around has remained stubbornly strong in most American places. It seemed this generation’s step into the next phase of consumer life had merely been delayed, not canceled, thanks to economic forces.

No generation is a bloc: Geography and income also play a major role in how much Millennials are driving compared to one another. According to another analysis of the most recent National Household Travel Survey by the State Smart Transportation Initiative, higher-income Millennials are driving fewer miles annually than their lower-income peers—presumably due to their ability to live in higher-priced cities, where they’re closer to work and where alternative modes are available.

Overall, Millennials appear to be quickly catching up to their elders when it comes to driving—an inconvenient fact for policymakers trying to reduce rising vehicle emissions in the face of climate change. So it’s probably time to stop waiting on younger Americans to swear off the private automobile en masse, even as dockless scooters, bikes, and other smartphone-linked transpo-craft take to the streets. Surveys suggest that this generation is more eco-conscious than its priors, and reports a preference towards environmentally friendly products. But, the authors of the NBER paper write, Millennials “operate under many of the same constraints as prior generations”—that is, with spread-out cities, a lack of transit service, lengthy commutes, and a broad social expectation that a car is how you get from A to B. As long as those factors don’t change, it will be tough for this or any other generation to kill the car.

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