National Edition

Empty roads: Car love fades as millennials' values change

Published: Friday, Oct. 25 2013 11:40 a.m. MDT

Young people are turning less to cars for freedom and friends and relying on social media to connect with the world.


Imagine empty roads.

If some trends continue, millennials — people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — may be the generation that signaled the end of America's love affair with cars.

Amber Gibson, a 22-year-old model and recent valedictorian of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, is a good example of her generation's attitude toward automobiles.

"I see no reason to get a car in the foreseeable future," she says. "I never actually wanted a car. It has never been a goal for me. I never asked my parents for a car. I didn't want to save up to buy a car."

An analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data by consumer group U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that the number of miles driven per capita in the U.S. peaked in 2004 and has been dropping ever since. One of the biggest changes came from millennials.

A study by The Frontier Group and PIRG found that from 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people ages 16 to 34 dropped 23 percent. The national average for all Americans dropped only 6 percent between 2004 and 2011. "You can see this big gap between the national average and what young people are driving," says study co-author Benjamin Davis. "Obviously young people are leading this trend."

The percentage of young people without a driver's license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.

The trend, if it continues, challenges early predictions that had vehicle use climbing into the future. This would affect transportation and community planning, not to mention the sales of automobiles.

Car love dying

Holly Ann Oberle is 31 and hasn't owned a car since 2004.

She says she was a typical teenager growing up and was devastated when she thought she wouldn't get a car for her 16th birthday.

"I got my driver's license at 16," she says. "I was addicted to my car."

She loved her gray Honda Prelude and would drive with her friends up and down Main Street in her hometown of Fort Collins, Colo.

"Looking back," she says, "I can't imagine why it was fun. But it was."

But times change and so do attitudes.

She went to college, including a lot of studying overseas (She is the author of "College Abroad"). Currently she lives in Barcelona, Spain, and enjoys how easy it is to get around in Europe without a car. She is looking for a job back in the U.S. "If I have my choice, I'll live in a place where I don't need a car — even if I make a lot of money," she says.

The Frontier Group and PIRG study concluded that some of the main reasons millennials are not using cars include higher gas prices, new licensing laws restricting younger drivers — such as requiring drivers below a certain age to not drive at night. Davis adds improvements in technology make it easier to not have a car — such as smartphones accessing real-time transit information that can help people know when the next bus is coming and how to get to destinations without having to be an expert in schedules and routes. millennials' values and preferences also come into play.

At the same time their use of cars is going down, the study says young people's use of public transit increased 40 percent, walking to destinations increased 16 percent and biking trips were up 24 percent.

Urban living

Part of the reason Oberle and Gibson do not want cars comes from where they live.

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