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%.
SO, LIKE, WHAT'S THE DEAL?
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.
WHY THE CHANGE?
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.