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Kerry Cardoza/MEDILL

Jenn Smith and Keith Kostecki, an artist couple who live in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago have lived without a car for years.

Millennials lead trend in less car-ownership, driving

by Kerry Cardoza
Jun 5, 2014

Miles driven in America have stagnated since 2004, according to a 2013 study by U.S. PIRG, a consumer group. While all Americans are driving less, the change is primarily caused by young people, of which millennials (those born after 1981) are now the largest demographic. If it continues in this direction, the trend could have serious repercussions both for transportation policy and the auto industry. 

Jenn Smith, 34, has chosen not to own a car for a variety of reasons. The Chicago resident, an artist and a librarian, has many alternative transportation options from the bus and the subway to bicycling and walking. If there is a longer trip she needs to take, such as visiting family out of town, she will often use Zipcar. The initial reason to forego a car was purely practical – she couldn't afford it.

“I didn't really have a car when I decided to move to Chicago. I was borrowing my parents' car and it was about to not work anymore,” she said. Living without a car seemed like the most logical decision. “I didn't have any money to get a new one and I never felt like I needed to have a new one.”

As a young professional, Smith is part of the growing trend in her demographic. According to a Wall Street Journal report, 88 percent of young people cite an increasing desire to live in cities, where access to a personal automobile may not be a necessity. Joseph Schofer, civil and environmental engineering professor at Northwestern University, agreed that millenials are leading this trend towards less driving. “There is a value change,” he said. “They're kind of defining where the market is going. They're less dependent on automobiles, they're more dependent on public transit.”

According to a 2012 AAA study, only 44 percent of teenagers are getting driver’s licenses within a year of eligibility. Most cited financial constraints and lack of interest as the main reasons for the delay. Lack of interest in driving may increase for younger populations. A recent Deloitte study found that 46 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds chose Internet access over owning a car.

In a much-discussed speech at the 2011 Automotive News World Congress, Toyota Chief Operating Officer James Lentz acknowledged the challenges the auto industry faces with young consumers. "We have to face the growing reality that today young people don't seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations," he said.

The U.S. PIRG report shows that from 2001 to 2009 driving among millennials and young generation X-ers declined 23 percent. Other factors that will likely contribute to the decline in auto sales, according to the U.S. PIRG study, are the aging baby boom generation, high gas prices, and the amount of time Americans are willing to spend in travel. For younger generations interested in living in cities and traveling by bike or public transit, it is clear that public policy will need to change to reflect the future desires of its citizens.

Schofer acknowledges that there has been a shift in public policy towards a less-car-centered future. This shift, however, is not as drastic across the country as it may seem in cities, he said. “The automobile is still by far the primary mode of transportation,” Schofer said. The fact that car sales are up this year indicate that part of the lagging sales in the last several years was partly due to the recession. Additionally the government's main transportation investment is currently highway maintenance and rehabilitation. “The highway network sustains freight transportation which is critical to economic development,” he said.

The Chicago metropolitan area has seen an increased investment in transit in recent years, with a $1.39 billion Chicago Transportation Authority budget for 2013, a 12 percent increase from 2012's $1.24 billion budget. According to the its website, the CTA's 2013-2017 Capital Improvement Plan will invest $2.8 billion into modernizing CTA infrastructure, overhauling and replacing vehicles, and bringing the system into a state of good repair.

At the same time, Illinois is poised to spend a hefty sum on the proposed Illiana Expressway. The proposal calls for a 47-mile highway that will run between Illinois and Indiana and be reserved for vehicles using electronic toll devices. According to a bi-state agreement on the project, the Land of Lincoln has pledged at least $250 million, a move some critics say wastes taxpayer money and could take the state 39 years to pay off.

It is proposed projects like this that the U.S. PIRG study says need to be reviewed. The study issues several recommendations for future policy changes such as supporting Americans' desires to drive less, mostly through local governments, refocusing federal transportation funding, and using transportation revenue where it is most needed. While the data shows Americans have been driving less for a number of years, Schofer is cautious as to how quickly the government will refocus its transportation plan. “I wouldn't expect to see any kind of radical change,” he said. “It's not a tsunami. You're not going to get wet from it.”