Tony Dutzik is senior policy analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of a recent report on shifting transportation habits.
Members of the Millennial generation drive less than they did a decade ago. That much is clear. But are Millennials driving less simply because of the economy? Or are they driving less by choice, because of changing values or changing technologies?
The answer to that question matters. If the factors driving the Millennials to drive less are lasting, then America can probably afford to spend far less on new highway capacity in the years to come, freeing up resources for other long-neglected transportation priorities.
A 2012 study [PDF] by researchers at UCLA that is just now making it into broader discussion (see this piece from the Atlantic Cities last week) sheds some light on the subject — though not necessarily for the reasons that are gaining the most attention.
The UCLA study analyzes data from the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) — which was last conducted in 2009 — to investigate how various economic, demographic and other factors influenced people’s travel behavior.
The most important finding, perhaps, is that younger Americans are indeed driving less than previous generations. “All things equal,” the study found, “younger generations appear to (a) travel fewer miles and (b) make fewer trips than was the case for previous generations at the same stage in their lives.” Specifically, they found that young people born in the 1990s traveled 18 percent fewer miles and took 4 percent fewer trips than those born in previous decades. And the data show that while the economy is one important factor, it’s not the only factor.
That finding should be interpreted with caution since it is based on only a few years’ worth of information about drivers born in the 1990s. Even with that caveat, however, the UCLA study might provide the most direct evidence to date for a generational shift in travel patterns.
The other results of the study, however, are attracting more attention — especially its conclusion that there is no link between reductions in driving among Millennials and the use of “information and communications technologies.”
That’s unfortunate, because the UCLA study uses only one metric — daily use of the Internet — to assess how technology use affected travel behavior in 2009. For young people especially, it’s a very limited and possibly outmoded measure.