Commentary

The Truth About Millennial Commuting Patterns

Millennials, a nebulous term for Americans now entering high school to those in their early thirties, have affected trends in marketing, the workplace environment and, especially, driving. While pundits speculated that Millennials did not have the same attachment to cars as previous generations, recent evidence suggests economic conditions were a bigger factor. Total vehicle miles travelled (VMT) that declined during the recession are increasing again. With this increase, U.S. policymakers need to revise long-range plans and polices.

As Millennials came of age, they did not seem to have the same infatuation with cars as their parents. At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, overall VMT declined 7%, but Millennial VMT declined 18% compared to their same age peers in 2001. According to the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), VMT declined from 10,300 to 7,900 from 2001 to 2009.

Pundits assumed that Millennials (and to a lesser extent other age groups) were driving less because they were taking transit, biking and walking more. Yet there is little evidence to support this claim. The only evidence that Millennials began to increase alternative means of transportation lies in comparing a 2001 and 2009 study from NHTS. In 2009, when driving bottomed out, the average Millennial took 25 more trips on alternative forms of transportation totalling 117 miles, according to the NHTS, compared to those of the same age group in 2001.While there was an increase in biking, it came from a small base (about 0.5%). Transit usage increased by a paltry 1%. This uptick in alternative transport makes up for only 8% of lost driving leaving a whopping 92% of trips not being taken.

Why did Millennials travel less? The biggest culprit is the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis that accompanied it. Since the economy started improving in 2012, both miles driven and trips taken have been increasing. It seems that past assumptions of Millennials during the recession were inaccurate and based on momentary data, not long-term trends.

And while the temporary decrease in driving sounds impressive, the development of technology is a bigger factor. Since 2005 telecommuting has increased a hefty 79%—much faster than transit usage has increased. To attract talent, employers are keen to offer flexible schedules that include telecommuting. Millennials are using ridesharing including Uber and Lyft and home-delivery services such as AmazonFresh, Birchbox and Trunk Club as a substitute for some auto trips, particularly in major cities.

Another important factor is graduated driver’s licensing (GDL) laws. Today, all 50 states have some GDL law; yet it was not until 1996 when the first Millennials were getting their licenses that the first law was enacted. GDL laws require that drivers earn privileges in stages. There is a curfew and restrictions on driving with underage passengers. The law’s goal was to reduce teen driving deaths. But it also increased the age at which new drivers obtain their full license. Whereas generations past received the licenses within a year of attaining the appropriate age level (which might have been younger than 16), only 44% of them obtained a license within the first year of eligibility. For those Millennials aged 19, only 46% had a license compared to 64% for the preceding cohort.

Millennials also seem to be on a different time track. In previous generations, couples often married earlier and had a house, a job and a child by the age of 30. Today, the age of marriage has crept up to 35 or later. Adults over 25 in families with children have much higher rates of car ownership than singles of the same age.

Millennials, similar to every other generation, are not a homogenous group. Many Millennials are moving to the suburbs, buying cars, buying single family homes and commuting to work by car. Some of these Millennials may find the city’s core desirable, but choose to live in the suburbs because of quality schools and low-cost housing. In other words, they are making the same decisions their parents made—just on a delayed track. Additionally, the suburbs to which Millennials are moving are not the traditional white-only suburbs with large lawns. They are diverse places with multiple races, single family homes, apartments and mixed-use communities. Many suburbs offer quality transit service. While driving continues to be the dominant mode in most metro areas, other modes are available.

We don’t yet know if Millennials will have the same love affair with cars as previous generations. The Millennial generation is the largest group in the U.S., so carmakers are researching what Millennials value in an automobile. During 2015, despite only half of the cohort being in the typical car-buying age, Millennials bought four million cars or 48 cars per 1,000. Even if the younger part of the generation bought half as many cars, the car owernship rate would be 72 cars per 1,000. In contrast, generation Xers, with fewer members, bought a little over three million vehicles equalling a car ownership rate of 67 cars per 1,000. Baby Boomers bought five million cars or 67 cars per 1,000. Car-buying among Millennials will certainly increase as they grow older and wealthier.

Despite the hype that Millennials have significantly different values from their parents, the data shows their travel patterns for similar ages to be remarkably similar. The difference is more between age groups: people younger than 25 are far less likely to own a car than those over 25 regardless of generation. While Millennials are more connected, use travel options including Uber and Lyft and travel slightly less, the differences in generations are minor.

Baruch Feigenbaum is assistant director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.