Younger and Less Likely to Drive

Studies show that Young Americans are leaving their parents and grandparents in the dust… while riding bikes, taking public transportation and even walking. Less than 1/2 of eligible teens 19 or younger have driver’s licenses, down from approximately 2/3 ten years ago, annual vehicle miles driven by Americans ages 16 to 34 have dropped 23% from 2001 to 2009 and biking and walking as alternative forms of transportation have increased by 24% and 16%, respectively, among the same age group. In addition, in 2009 and 2010 — for the first time since World War II — American car ownership rates declined.

This trend can be attributed to many cultural and economic factors.  Perhaps, most obvious is that the country is in a major recession. Young people are having trouble finding jobs and paying rent. Few can afford to buy and maintain a car (approximately $9,000 per year with all payments, maintenance, parking and other fees). These young people are flocking to cities where they can find jobs and get around without the hassle and expense of a car. However, this is only a contributing factor. The shift from cars to other means of transportation, especially cycling, is most stark among wealthier Americans and those least affected by the recession, so it seems unlikely that if/when the economy turns around the younger generation will begin buying cars en masse.

What could be causing the cultural shift away from driving? One explanation is the steadily rising price of gas. Generation Y is driving at a time of $4/$5 gallons of gas. They can barely remember the $1 prices of their childhood, or the $.10 gallons of their parents youth. High gas prices are the norm and it doesn’t look like that will change soon. So, with high gas prices here to stay, younger generations will inevitably be driving less and less.

Some people, like Jeremy Bowman at Daily Finance, also give credit for the shifting trend to social media. Taking public transportation is becoming more and more convenient and accessible, especially since mobile apps tell you when the next bus is coming, help you find the best route and provide ample entertaiment during the ride. Smartphones allow buses and trains to become mobile offices and entertainment stations. In an ever-more work-obssessed culture, that extra 30min to answer emails while riding the bus, instead of being stuck behind the wheel in bumper-to-bumper traffic, is the preferable option.

The role of the environment is also playing a role. Generation Y has grown up with bigger and more frequent natural disasters than any generation before them. The affects of global warming are literally happening in front of their eyes. The increasing evidence that fossil fuels and carbon emissions have a negative effect on the environment and the role of cars in this cycle has had an affect on consumer choices.

The ‘obesity problem’ in the U.S. may also have an affect. Americans are perceived by the rest of the world to be overweight (see also, In Bruges and Paris, je t’aime, to list a few), and studies have shown that this perception has adequate basis. Young Americans are trying to climb out from under this legacy and one way could be through lessening automobile dependence.

Portland is one of the cities where the decline in car ownership is most drastic.Giving up a car in Portland is feasible because of its high population density, the convenient location of services and stores, and its extensive public transportation network, car sharing services and bike paths.

Living car free is not so easy elsewhere, even in San Francisco and the East Bay, but especially in the mid-West and in smaller towns and cities where a car is absolutely necessary to get to the food market. A car-free lifestyle won’t be possible in many areas until city planner’s objectives drastically change. Hopefully this alternative-transportation-minded younger generation will make it happen.



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