Millennial Generation choices are not fundamental changes in America’s future driving and living.

COST Commentary: As noted by Poole in the two articles below, there are no factual foundations for the rash of reports that automobile driving has peaked and the millennial generation represents a change in preferences and behavior of young people. This is another in a wave of shallow, misleading and unsupported reportings of shifting human behavior regarding American’s transportation and living choices.

These misconceptions are promoted by numerous leaders in Austin. Many believe, because they are told frequently, greater population density will significantly decrease congestion and that “sprawl” increases ‘vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Facts reveal the truth to be the exact opposite. Population density has an insignificant reduction in VMT per capita. The very small reduction is overwhelmed by increased population density which generates overall increased congestion. Dispersion of jobs and living throughout the region actually reduces VMT per capita. There are two key reasons for these results: 1.) Only 20% or less of all VMT are for commuting to work and 80% or more are for all the other, no-job related travel. Dispersion (“sprawl’) substantially reduces the 80% non-job travel. and, 2.) With rising prosperity and women’s achievement of parity in work force numbers, the number of vehicles per capita has essentially reached a plateau with very little increase.

The Austin region is a good example of these two trends in that the region’s VMT per capita has been decreasing for many years as Austin has dispersed and its total VMT has been increasing more consistent with population growth.

VMT Growth and the Millennial Generation

by Robert W. Poole, Jr. in Surface Transportation Innovations, Issue No. 116, June 2013
The Reason Foundation

For the last several years, popular media have featured articles about “peak car” and the recent decline of vehicle miles of travel (VMT) in developed countries. The anti-auto group PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) made a big splash last month, when their report (“A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future”) got a favorable write-up in the New York Times (May 13th). PIRG’s thesis is that the key to recent U.S. decreases in VMT and VMT per capita is changes in preferences and behavior among young people (ages 16-24)—the so-called Millennial generation. The story line is that Millennials are not very interested in getting a driver’s license or living in the suburbs; they want to live downtown and walk, bike, or use transit. PIRG then does a lot of number crunching to produce VMT projections through 2040 that are drastically lower than anyone else’s, and uses those results to argue for shifting a lot more transportation dollars from highways to transit, bikeways, etc.

In my column in the May issue of Public Works Financing, I questioned this thesis, drawing in part on analysis by commuting expert Alan Pisarski. He points out that the recession has hit young people the hardest, citing a Pew Center study in 2010 that found 37% of young respondents either out of work or underemployed. He also cited figures from the National Highway Transportation Survey that annual miles driven per person differ dramatically by employment status. For those 16-24, employed males averaged 12,000 miles in 2009, compared with about 6,000 miles for unemployed males. Pisarski also noted that in the last two decades, nearly all states have enacted “graduated licensing” schemes that restrict driving by those 16 to 18. Nevertheless, from 2001 to 2009, the fraction of those under 19 with drivers licenses was essentially flat.

In the May issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson assembled an array of data on Millennials, showing, for example, that the number of people ages 15 to 34 living with their parents soared from 0.5 million in 2008 to nearly 2 million in 2011. Fewer young people are getting married, having children, and buying homes—which has led to what Thompson describes as “stagnation” in household formation since 2007. As the economy recovers, all those trends are likely to reverse.

As for the alleged shift of Millennials and others from driving to transit, biking, and walking, that’s very hard to find in the data. In a recent presentation at the U.S. DOT’s Volpe Center, researchers David Pace and Don Pickrell compared the reductions in driving to increases in use of alternative modes. They find that increased transit use accounts for only about 1% of the decrease in auto travel, with bicycle and walk trips appearing to account for only a few percent more. Other possible factors (besides the recession) include the growth of online shopping and a nearly one percentage point increase in the mode share of telecommuting.

As for the much-touted preference of Millennials to live in the city center, the statistical evidence says otherwise. Demographer Wendell Cox reviewed the data last month in a piece for Comparing Census data for 2010 and 2000, Cox finds that people between 20 and 29 “were less inclined to live in more urban and walkable neighborhoods than their predecessors.” In 2000, 19% of those in this age group lived in the core municipalities of major metro areas, compared with 13% in 2010. Likewise, in 2000 35% of them lived in suburbs, compared with 45% in 2010. (The balance lived outside major metro areas.)

So what can we make of all this? Clearly, VMT per capita cannot go on rising indefinitely. The major increases since World War II have come about via the entry of most of the female population into the workforce, along with rising prosperity that has enabled large fractions of lower-income people to afford cars. Pisarski and others predict that future growth in overall VMT will be driven primarily by population growth rather than increased per-capita driving. But the just-so story about Millennials losing interest in driving appears to be mostly an artifact of the recession’s severe impact on younger people, not a fundamental change in their choices of where to live or how to travel.

Further Debate on Changes in Driving

by Robert W. Poole, Jr. in Surface Transportation Innovations, Issue No. 116, June 2013
The Reason Foundation

The debate on whether vehicle miles of travel (VMT) have peaked in the United States has continued over the summer. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released a follow-up to its earlier report claiming that VMT has begun to trend downward, thanks to changed driving behavior of Millenials. Their new report, “Moving Off the Road: A State by State Analysis of the National Decline in Driving,” presents a statistical analysis of whether a state’s change in VMT per capita (not, you will note, total VMT) is correlated with the change in its unemployment rate between 2005 and 2011. Since the analysis showed no correlation, PIRG takes this as evidence that behavior change, not economic distress, is probably the causal factor. And, as predictable as night follows day, they recommend that government should be diverting funds from highways to transit, bikeways, sidewalks, etc.

There is a lot more going on here than Millenials’ behavior. First, Don Pickrell and David Pace at DOT’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center addressed the question of whether VMT has begun a downtrend in a recent workshop there. They find that young adult driving has declined more than that of older people, but that women in their mid-30s to mid-60s are driving more over the past decade, as are seniors of both genders. High fuel prices have a larger impact on younger and less affluent drivers than on others, so that may be blurring the effect of unemployment as a factor.

Another indicator is that traffic congestion, after declining for several years, has been climbing again, as monthly updates from INRIX have documented. Their July report, released at the end of August, found traffic congestion up an average of 7.4% this July, compared with July 2012, in the hundred largest urban areas, with the greatest increases in the Midwest.

Demographer Wendell Cox posted a detailed assessment on in May following the initial PIRG report, teasing out whether there was actual evidence of a shift from driving to other modes during the Great Recession. Using FHWA and FTA data for 2005 and 2011 he calculated the per-capita reduction in driving at 900 miles. But transit ridership per capita increased by just 15 miles. Cox’s assessment is that people simply economized on their traveling, rather than shifting from cars to other modes.

American Community Survey commuting data for 2011 were released last fall and showed trivial changes between 2010 and 2011 in mode share. More interesting for identifying trends are the differences between 2000 and 2011, summarized here:

Driving for commuting purposes actually increased modestly during that decade. The two major changes were a large decrease in car/van pooling and a significant (33%) increase in working at home.

Now let’s compare the above data with the same commuting data for just those ages 16-24:

We see here the same general trend as with the larger commuting population—increased driving alone, greatly reduced car/van pooling, a slightly larger increase in transit, and a near doubling of telecommuting.

Just about everyone I know in transportation thinks that VMT per capita has probably topped out over the past decade, and that future growth in total personal VMT will be driven mostly by increases in population (with truck VMT driven more by economic growth). That’s why the VMT growth rates that I adapted from the Volpe modeling (for use in the Interstate 2.0 study) are more moderate than many previous VMT projections based on extrapolating historical trends.

Comments are closed.

©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation