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.
Part of the reason Oberle and Gibson do not want cars comes from where they live.
Oberle's love of cars faded when she moved to Chicago. She drove it once or twice, but paid $10 a day to park it.
"This is nuts," she says she thought at the time. So when she went back to visit her parents in Colorado, she sold it. "There is a lot of independence associated with not having a car," she says. "I don't worry about where to park it, I don't pay for it and I don't worry about whether it is safe and going to be stolen."
Gibson also ended up in the Windy City.
"I moved to Chicago and live near Lincoln Park," she says. "There is no shortage of things to do in Chicago. Not having a car hasn't been a big trouble."
The National Association for Realtors found that young singles, meaning those who have never married and are under 35, are more likely to live in cities (31 percent young singles compared to 24 percent of the general population) and prefer to live in urban areas (31 percent versus 19 percent of the general population). Young singles like having businesses and homes close to each other. The majority of young singles (56 percent) would rather live in an apartment or townhouse in a walkable neighborhood than in a single-family home that would require more driving.
The Brookings Institute reported that in 2011, for the first time in more than 90 years, "the major cities of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas grew faster than their combined suburbs."
Davis says our society has become saturated with driving.
In the past, according to Davis, in the decades after World War II, rising incomes, suburban living, the increasing numbers of women into the workforce, better cars and better highways all put millions of new drivers of the road. By the end of the 20th century, he says, those trends had played out and started to reverse. As baby boomers retire, gas prices rise and people experience the effects of a down economy, driving is decreasing.
"Transit and other transportation modes ridership has also been increasing," Davis says. "Americans are increasingly choosing other modes of transportation."
But another factor is helping the reduction of driving — the Internet.
A study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan found that a higher proportion of Internet users do not have driver's licenses compared to the general public. "This finding is consistent with the hypothesis," the study authors say, "that access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people."
"Back in the ’50s and 60s, oftentimes people viewed freedom as having a home in the suburb and using cars to tranport into work," Davis says. "That sense of freedom is changing. People are connected to their peers with what is in the palm of their hands. That is changing what is important to us."
Car companies, perhaps sensing declining interest, are trying to woo millennials with things such as Apple's new "iOS in the Car," a way to integrate the iPhone with driving.
Ryan Barker, an executive vice president at Vision Critical, a marketing and branding company in New York, says if you look at the interplay consumers have with products and brands as a relationship, automobile companies are not achieving the love they need.
Vision Critical's "Brand Equity Relationship Assessment" found that the top brands loved by millennials include companies like Google, YouTube, Amazon.com, Nintendo, Oreo, Microsoft, Reese's, iPod, Crayola and Google Chrome. Not a single car brand is among the top 25 brands that millennials love the most.
"Oreo, Crayola they truly embrace the notion of listening to consumers and reacting and responding," Barker says. "They know when to talk and know how to listen."
Big auto manufacturers not so much.
Barker says the electric car company, Tesla, is an exception, however, and is on its way to be a loved brand — even though it does not spend millions on advertising. Instead, it has things like small showrooms in malls.
Trends and choices
John Z Wetmore says the trend of fewer drivers will impact community planning and success. Wetmore produces "Perils of Pedestrians," a television show that looks at walkable communities across the world, and thinks many changes are coming.
"People are a lot more interested in having transportation choices than they were a couple of decades ago," he says.
Companies are trying to attract millennials by locating in walkable urban areas, instead of fancy suburban high-tech parks, which has long been the trend.
"When people are passing each other on the sidewalk," he says, "there is serendipitous interaction that you don't have when driving by each other."
If the U.S. government's official forecasts of an increase of 44 percent to 67 percent in miles driven by 2040 is correct, that will require certain planning and infrastructure outlay. However, if Millennial driving preferences and love of urban areas, walkable neighborhoods and other factors prevail, PIRG sees a flattening or even decline in vehicle use. That future would require a shift in infrastructure spending and planning down the road.
Amber Gibson, sees car use as a matter of different priorities. If she had the money for a nice new automobile, she would stick to the Millennial trend.
"I would buy a Hermès Birkin bag instead," she says with a laugh. "I'd rather have it than a car. I'd use the bag. I wouldn't use the car."