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Young People Are Driving Much Less (But Not For The Reasons You Think)

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Transportation and the New Generation, a study by the Frontier Group

Transportation and the New Generation, a study by the Frontier Group

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One of the most interesting trends we've seen among young people is one of the most worrying for automakers: Generation Y's lack of interest in cars.

It's been noted in countries around the globe, and we've spent a lot of time discussing the matter here at The Car Connection. The general consensus seems to be that Gen Y (roughly, those age 18-34) is more interested in gadgets than gears. In fact, young people told GM that driving is frustrating because it cuts into time that could be spent texting

The explanation for young folks' lack of interest in cars is all over the map. Some people have argued that vehicles need to put social media front and center so that Gen Y will feel connected (a notion that keeps Ray LaHood up at night).

It's led some automakers to build cars that directly target young people, with elements and designs that are the direct result of focused conversations with Generation Y. (We saw that sort of thing on display at January's Detroit Auto Show, with the Chevrolet Code 130R and Tru 140S concepts. )

The trend has caused others to throw up their hands and point to economic data indicating that young people are un- and under-employed. Until Gen Y finds some degree of economic stability, they're not likely to return to showrooms, letting their parents and grandparents control the market.

But new data from the Frontier Group throws some fairly cold water in the face of those arguments.

In a new study entitled, "Transportation and the New Generation", the Frontier Group looked at driving trends in America from 1970 to 2011. They found that since World War II, the number of miles driven by Americans had steadily increased, until we were averaging just over 10,000 miles per year.

But around 2004, that figure shifted into reverse. By last year, we were driving 6% fewer miles than in 2004, and among Generation Y the figure was even more pronounced. In fact, between 2001 and 2009, young people reduced their driving to just 7,900 miles per year -- a dip of 23%.


It would be easy to look at that figure and think, "Well, duh. In 2009, we were in the depths of the Great Recession. Of course young people weren't traveling much. Where would they have gone?"

But it's not that simple.

For starters, the decline in driving began in 2001, years before the Great Recession. So it would seem to be part of some larger, generational shift.

Also, during that same period, young people's use of bikes and mass transit shot up dramatically. By 2009, Gen Y was taking 24% more bike trips and using public transportation 40% more often. Even walking was up 16%.

Most interestingly, those figures were even higher among young people from affluent households. For those living in homes with incomes over $70,000, walking increased 37%, public transit usage jumped 100%, and biking surged 122%.

In other words: young people haven't stopped traveling, they've just stopped driving.


The Frontier Group cites a number of possible reasons for the shift in transportation habits. Some of those include:

  • Technology like social media and text-messaging, which reduce the need for face-to-face interaction.
  • Graduated driving laws, which make it harder for young people to acquire their licenses.
  • The high cost of gas, which is offputting to folks at the beginning of their careers (and the low end of their earning potential).
  • Location, because many young people choose to live in urban areas where alternative means of transportation are abundant and efficient.
  • Eco-friendliness, which causes many in Gen Y to seek greener ways of getting around. 

Of course, it bears mentioning that the Frontier Group is "a think tank, producing ideas and research to promote a cleaner environment and a fairer and more democratic society", which seems like the sort of organization that would be interested in producing a study that shows "greenifying" trends like this. To the Group's credit, though, it cites a range of sources, from the Federal Highway Administration to the National Association of Realtors.

If you have time this Monday, you can download the entire study as a PDF here.

[via Autoblog]

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Comments (7)
  1. Driving a piece of Japanese crap is hardly thrilling, is it?

  2. With all due respect, David, it's not just Japanese automakers that are struggling to gain a foothold with Gen Y. It's all of them: American, Asian, and European brands.

  3. Graduated licensing =
    at 16, when prior generations were driving around with thier friends, current young people can only drive in daylight hours with 1 other person.
    at 17 kids still have restrictions on when and with who they can drive and are considered by many as "new drivers".
    at 18, while getting thier "unrestriced" license, they are also heading to college where they aren't allowed a car for thier first year.
    at 19 - 21 they are in college, racking up student debt, and drivign the parents car or older vehicles that we drove when we were 16.
    at 22 - 13 they are saddled with debt and are trying to find a job that will let them live on thier own and pay for thier gadgets.

    Why is it suprising they drive less?

  4. Hard to figure. In war-torn Europe of the 1940s and '50s, people walked, rode bicycles, and used mass transit more than since the early 1920s simply because there was no alternative. They got back into automobiles as soon as they could. So it's surprising that in today's far more affluent world people would actually make a choice to regress some 60 years or so. But such is the mystery of the human species. Then again, given the slant of the outfit doing the study, sources notwithstanding, the "trend" may be partly based on wishful thinking or desire to influence the behavior of impressionable young people. Given a choice, most folks avoid mass transit like the plague! We ride bikes or walk for fun and exercise, not serious transportation.

  5. I think you're missing the point: the number of people who have a choice yet "avoid mass transit like the plague" is declining. I grew up in a rural area where you needed a car to get anywhere. I now choose to live in an urban area where I have almost everything I need within walking distance or a very short bus or car ride away. And I hope my city's transit network improves to the point where I no longer need to own a car. I'm not saying that *everyone* is like me, but there is a growing number of people like me. The stigma against people that take transit and/or bike for transportation is simply going away.

  6. 24 years ago I lived in New Jersey and worked in Manhattan. Like most of the people I knew, we commuted. Those people who could catch a bus or train that took them into Manhattan in a single trip could sleep, read, eat, or whatever they wished and generally were happier than those who had to make several connections. The idea that mass transit allows people to do other things while traveling is not new, it's being discovered by lots of people who never figured it out before.

  7. So GREEN Orgs fund the study.. & who funds your work (BP)

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