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Why are young people driving less?

By David Rosenfeld
Executive Director

I want to share a new report by OSPIRG Foundation and Frontier Group: Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What it Means for Transportation Policy. The report documents the nationwide decline in driving—and finds that young people are leading the trend. The report explores the many factors that have led to the decrease in driving among the young. Bottom line: if these trends are structural, as the data suggests, then transportation planners will need to overhaul their assumptions about whether the nation needs (or can afford) major highway expansions.

From the end of World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the century, the growth in vehicle travel slowed---and then, in 2008 vehicle travel went into reverse.  Last year, the average American drove 6 percent fewer miles than in 2004. And in Oregon, the declines in vehicle travel were earlier and steeper than in the nation overall, as was recently reported by The Oregonian and Sightline Institute (Thanks to Sightline's Clark Williams-Derry for his help with this post).

This trend away from driving is even more pronounced among young people. Measured per person, drivers between the ages of 16 and 34 logged 23 percent fewer miles on the roads in 2009 than did their same-aged counterparts in 2001—more than double that of older generations.

The report looks at several possible factors behind this trend, including:

  • Preferring smart growth neighborhoods. According to surveys by the National Association of Realtors, this generation of young people prefer living in “smart growth neighborhoods” that make it easier to live and work with less driving.
  • Using public transit. Surveys demonstrate that young people are using public transit in increasing numbers, driving the overall national uptick in public transit use. And new technologies that make it easier to know when the next bus or train arrives could be attracting some young people who might have been deterred from public transit in previous years.
  • New ways to stay in touch without a car. Although firm data remains scarce, some surveys show that young people use electronic means of communication as a substitute for some driving as a way to stay in touch with friends.
  • New drivers’ license rules reduce youth driving. Since the mid-1990s, as a means for reducing youth driving accidents, most states have required young people to go through a more rigorous process to obtain a drivers’ license. Many experts believe this is why from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.
  • Gas prices unlikely to drop back to historical levels. Even though gas prices continue to fluctuate, the annual line cost of filling up the same tank of gas has more than doubled between 2001 and today. Even though gas prices fluctuate, young people may have internalized higher fuel prices as a fact of life—and could be making longer term lifestyle choices based on this perception.

The report argues, as have many others, that many of these trends represent long-term, structural shifts, and aren’t simply products of the recent recession. The report points to data showing that even young people minimally impacted by the recession are following the same trends as their less fortunate counterparts. Moreover, the overall trend of driving less began in Oregon nearly a decade ago, several years before the recession.

Clearly, more research should be done. What seems clear, however, is that transportation planners should reconsider their long-standing assumption that driving will continue to increase. The report concludes:

“The changing transportation preferences of young people—and Americans overall—throw that assumption into doubt. Transportation decision-makers at all levels—federal, state and local—need to understand the trends that are leading to the reduction in driving among young people and engage in a thorough reconsideration of America’s transportation policy-making to ensure that it serves both the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s young Americans and moves the nation toward a cleaner, more sustainable and economically vibrant future.”

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them. Again, you can get the report here.

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