Millennials Buying Fewer Cars – But That Doesn’t Mean Abandon the Roads

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A 2014 survey by the WISPIRG Foundation – Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group – found that shifting attitudes about transportation and car ownership are having an effect on where the Millennial generation chooses to live and work.  In effect, the study shows younger adults want transportation options beyond cars and highways – and that Wisconsin is failing in this respect. Instead, the state is building more and bigger highways, a single-mode transportation choice – missing out on how Millennials want options that include walking, public transportation and bicycling – things that are increasingly offered in densely-populated, urban areas.

WISPIRG’s study report links this to a “brain drain” of college graduates, given how more than half of them move out of state post-college. From 530 interviews on 14 campuses in the Badger State, 84 percent said it is somewhat or very important for them to have options to cars. Only 14 percent of respondents felt such options didn’t matter.

The study echoes findings by the Nielsen Company, which identified the 24 percent of the total U.S. population that Millennials comprise (ages 18-36) as less likely to own a car (66% in 2011 vs. 73% in 2007). Also, this generation is a key driver in migrations to cities and “new urbanism” developments that are pedestrian- and transit-friendly in suburbs near those cities; Nielsen notes that suburbs of Miami, Memphis, San Antonio, Portland and Jersey City are key examples.

Motor Trend magazine previously reported these trends in 2012 in an article, “Why Young People Are Driving Less; Is the Automobile Over?” Reporter Todd Lassa wrote how the share of the 14- to 34-year-old cohort without a driver’s license in 2010 was 26 percent, a sharp climb from the 21 percent without licenses in 2000. That same demographic made 24 percent more trips by bicycle and increased distances traveled by public transportation by 40 percent.

The apps are the drivers

Note, members of this generation are not abandoning use of cars altogether – they just don’t necessarily want to own them. While that may be partly a function of the Great Recession and residual lower wages, digital age entrepreneurs have already sprung up with game-changing solutions. For example, car share (ZipCar, Enterprise iGo) and ride share (Lyft, Uber) companies provide wheels with the touch of a smartphone app. Smartphone apps have also made use of public transportation more efficient, and are at the core of how bike share programs such as New York’s Citi Bike, Washington D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare and Chicago’s Divvy programs work.

In Helsinki (Finland), a trip-planning platform in test takes all of this to the next level with an ambitious program that the Finns call MaaS, mobility as a service. Working also with a smartphone app, the customer establishes their start and destination points, along with preferences (Other passengers? Stuff to haul?). The app then might steer that individual to a car-share service, a bus-city bike combination, a taxi or Uber car, all of which involve a financial transaction and none of which require the customer to own wheels.

For individuals already using public transportation apps in the U.S., this is not a far stretch or a new paradigm. The Finnish experiment simply adds options while consolidating them into a single service.

Implications for highway building and road repairs

Basing his article in part on a study by the Frontier Group think tank (“Transportation and the New Generation,” Davis and Dutzik, 2012), Motor Trend’s Lassa posits that as this younger generation explores its own options – starting with living in urban areas where alternative services are more available – so too must states and cities make decisions about how to manage transportation expenditures. “This means reallocating Federal Highway Trust Funds to existing roads that need repair, rather than to expanding roads or building new ones,” he suggests.

In effect, Lassa seems to be saying, “fix the potholes.” Because no one is saying the roads need to disappear. People still want to go places – perhaps not on a daily basis to a job, and perhaps not to shop for every item they want to purchase. When they want to travel where bikes and trains may not work, they will rent (or “share”) a vehicle appropriate for the trip. When they want to make a purchase, they’ll do it online – fully anticipating that the delivery services using surface transportation will bring it to their doorstep. But in the car share universe that means someone else owns, insures and services those vehicles.

So this is not a complete abandonment of cars and – people still want and need to go places, and in many situations the car and surface transportation remain the best options. If anything, the research shows that Millennials live for experiences, including the ability to go places, see things and visit people. They just feel less a need to own a car 365 days a year to make those things happen.

Getting back to the WISPRIG study, the implications are that municipalities and states that fail to offer options will also fail to attract and hold younger workers – and the companies that employ them. Bloomberg News reported in July 2014 that 41 cities now offer protected bike lanes, in part to alleviate traffic congestion but largely to draw the demographic of a younger, tech-savvy workforce. The U.S. Census reported that the number of U.S. bicycle commuters increased by 60 percent between 2000 and 2012. On-street, unprotected bike lanes in U.S. cities today stand at 8,600 miles, while buffered/protected lanes are not yet built but have proven to increase ridership even more.

Far from being a road-building death knell, each of these transportation options requires pavement construction and maintenance. The Rails-to-Trails conservancy, an organization that advocates for the conversion of unused/abandoned railroads (and their accompanying rights-of-way) to active transport (biking, walking, inline skating) emphasizes the greater versatility and lower maintenance costs of asphalt and concrete versus crushed and granular stone, which utterly fails to accommodate inline skaters and thin-tire bikes. Further, in urban areas such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Las Vegas, experiments with bus rapid transit (BRT) systems means retrofitting existing highways, sometimes with lane additions, to allow a dedicated lane for faster-moving buses (a much less expensive means than adding train lines and subways).

The 77 million people who comprise the Millennial generation are now wielding the same influence as their Baby Boomer parents: so where goeth this generation, so goeth the nation. The smart businesses that recognize this are more likely to thrive in the future.