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Young People Are Driving Less—And Not Just Because They're Broke

Yes, Millennials are strapped for gas and car money. But their values are also changing dramatically.

As a teenager, I had little interest in driving. I lived in Prince George’s County, Maryland, mere blocks from the D.C. city line, with a bus hub down the hill and three Metro stations a mile or so from my parents’ house. And by the time my weekend evenings were done, I was rarely in any shape to get behind the wheel. (Sorry, Mom!)

I never got my driver’s license, which makes me an outlier in a nation of car lovers. But I have something in common with today’s teens. Recent studies show that American teenagers are far less likely to have their drivers’ licenses than their counterparts thirty years ago, and the trend continues to a lessening degree through the 20-something cohort. Today only 22 percent of drivers are under 30, down from a third in 1983.

As a result of decades of car-oriented land use policy, private automobiles are a necessity for many Americans. Even most urban areas of the Sunbelt—Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles—are barely traversable by foot, bike or train. Despite this reality, Americans seem to be driving less and returning to cities with a diversity of transit options. (I’ve chosen Philadelphia: We still have trolleys!) Young people, especially, are waiting longer to buy cars, and we’re driving less once we get them. Are norms are changing, or is it just the tough economy? Business Insider posits a strong link between this data and the recession: As unemployment goes up, Americans drive less—because many of them suddenly don’t have work to drive to, or because they simply can’t afford to maintain a car.

But it's not as simple as that. “For a very long time, the number of vehicle miles traveled has followed economic trends,” says Angie Schmitt, manager of the Streetsblog network. Yet the past few years have defied that logic: “As the economy has picked up speed a little bit in the last couple years, we haven’t seen vehicle miles traveled pick up.”

An April study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that between 2001 and 2009 the average annual vehicle miles traveled by Americans ages 16 to 34 fell by close to a quarter, from 10,300 to 7,900 per capita (four times greater than the drop among all adults), and from 12,800 to 10,700 among those with jobs. At the same time, the amount of bicycling, walking, and public transit ridership increased. And these trends aren’t just among broke millennials. There was an 100 percent increase in public transit usage among young people with incomes over $70,000.

This data corresponds with other studies. Zipcar consistently finds a strong Millennial desire to avoid driving. The National Association of Realtors found that six in ten of surveyed Americans preferred walkable neighborhoods to big houses, with young people leading the way. In 2011, the American Public Transportation Association found that ridership continued to climb, despite draconian budget cuts forcing riders to spend more for less.

The PIRG researchers concluded that this change couldn’t simply be pegged to the economy, but indicates a value shift. Perhaps Millennials have soured not only on the price of cars, gasoline, and upkeep—but also on the hassles of parking, the drudgery of traffic, and the negative effect cars have on urban life, air quality, and personal wellbeing. Or as Michael Hagerty, an auto journalist, wrote for AlterNet last month, many Millennials are “just plain sick of [driving] after spending 16 to 20 years with Suburbans strapped to their asses several hours a day.”

The rest of the population is beginning to follow suit. Consider Los Angeles, a car lover’s city if ever there was one, where 68 percent of residents voted for a half-cent sales tax increase specifically targeted toward transit. This new revenue amounts to about $40 billion over three decades and will double the size of the transit system, including new subway, light rail, and bus lines. While the plan is meant to unfold over 30 years, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is trying to speed things up, by asking voters to extend the tax increase indefinitely (it is meant to phase out in 2039), allowing the city to take out more bonds against future revenue.

“I'm excited about any expansion that makes more parts of the city accessible to more people,” says Amalia Levari, 32, who lives in L.A. without a car and uses her bus commuting time to craft haikus about the experience on Twitter. “I'm hopeful about the proposed ‘Subway to the Sea’ train line and the Purple Line expansion because there's a tremendous amount of distinct local culture—comedy, arty stuff, snacks—I can't access from West L.A. without military-level planning.”

Levari claims she hasn’t necessarily noticed a shift in attitudes in L.A., “other than a more resounding chorus concerning fuel prices and traffic congestion.” But a 2011 survey found 80 percent of SoCal voters want local government to expand transit options, including trains, light rail, and buses. About two-thirds of respondents wanted their governments to prioritize public transit over highways.

Still, with cities and states stuck in a perpetual budget crisis, where is the funding to come from? Here in Philadelphia, the transit authority predicts a budget deficit of $100 million by 2015, while state funding for infrastructure withers (things are worse in Pittsburgh). The hyper-polarized nature of Washington, D.C. has sucked the issue into the black hole of partisan politics. The overt politicization of transit policy can be seen in the extremist Agenda 21 movement (the United Nations is trying to take your car!) and the hippie-punching Republican representatives who seek to eliminate already meager bicycle and pedestrian funding.

“There are not a lot of folks from the 18-to-34 demographic in position to have a big impact on transportation policy,” says Schmitt of Streetsblog. “There are hardly any downsides to reforms that have to do with land use, cycling and walking, but we are still seeing a lot of resistance at the federal level.”

When the Millennial generation’s desire for more public transit and walkable neighborhoods clashes with political/policy gridlock, the result is skyrocketing real estate prices in the nation’s few non-car-centric cities. This can have a powerful displacement effect on lower-income residents. The more walkable a neighborhood, the more expensive it is. (Consider Manhattan, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, large swaths of Brooklyn, and Center City Philadelphia, among others.) This forces low-income and immigrant communities into the suburbs where, paradoxically, those least able to afford a car may be forced to get one.

There are alternatives, as Los Angeles shows. Changing zoning laws to allow higher densities could also help. If Millennials are serious about driving less, they must force transit policymakers to transform cities and suburbs into mixed-transit zones where a car may still be very useful, but not necessary for every trip. (See Dublin, Ohio.) This model may be even more important as Millennials start having children and grow wary of urban school options. We can’t all fit into the coastal cities and Chicago—and we can’t all afford them, either.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user chantel beam photography.

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