America’s car obsession will not be diminished by Millennials alone

» We cannot bank our hopes for a less car-dependent future on the supposed preferences of a new generation.

The plateauing and decline in U.S. vehicle miles traveled per capita that occurred between mid-2005 and mid-2014 was described by some hopeful commentators as a dramatic shift that was indicative of the preferences of a new workforce. Yes, it coincided with the recession and an increase in gas prices, they said, but it was really more about generational change. Whereas in the past Americans dreamed of living in the suburbs and traveling virtually everywhere in their single-occupant automobiles, now Americans, addicted to their smart phones, are looking for walkable, urban living. Evidence suggests that they may have had a point: The age at which people registered for drivers licenses is increasing and certainly neighborhoods in central neighborhoods in city after city have been blossoming of late.

The more recent uptick in per-capita vehicle miles traveled that has occurred since mid-2014, coinciding with a reduction in gas prices, has failed to dim this argument among some. The long-term facts are still there, many urbanists argue; younger people are fine with biking and taking transit. Yes, people might drive more when gas prices decrease, but they’re never going to drive as much as traffic models suggested they would.

Except that’s not enough. The basic facts of life on the ground in America—that our country is an automobile-oriented society—remain the case. Marginal changes in the way a new generation behaves, or even major changes in the way a new generation thinks, cannot overcome the realities of a country where more than three-fourths of jobs are located more than three miles from downtowns and where only one-fourth of homes are in places that their residents refer to as urban.

While slow change may be occurring—the share of Americans driving to work alone declined from 76.98 percent in 2005 to 76.46 percent in 2014—the overwhelming majority of U.S. residents will continue to rely on cars for their everyday needs. Just as importantly, the population is growing so much more quickly than these marginal changes are occurring that the problems related to car dependence are likely to get worse before they improve. Relying on a new generation’s supposed preferences to make a dramatic change in the nation’s overall habits is not only not going to work but it is also naive.

Missing the forest for the trees

Much of the impression that the society is changing is informed by the truly positive changes occurring in many of America’s center cities. In the ten cities with the highest number (not share) of people taking transit to work in 2014,* each saw more commuters using transit in 2014 than 2005. In total, the number of commuters using transit to get to work in those places increased by almost twice as much (+629,000 or +22%) as the number of people driving alone to work (+332,000 or +9%) over that period.

Between 2005 and 2014, there were seven times more new commuters driving alone to work than new transit riders at the national level.

In other words, the growth in workers in America’s most transit-friendly cities is being absorbed by the transit system more than the roadways. In Chicago, for example, I documented that growth in jobs was entirely absorbed—and more—by sustainable transportation modes and people working from home.

Given that this growth is corresponding to increased congestion on transit systems—visible to anyone who uses them—and, perhaps more importantly, that these cities are the center of American media and intellectual culture (the major East Coast regions, plus Chicago and the three biggest West Coast regions), we shouldn’t be surprised that the dominant narrative is one of a move away from cars.

But the truth is that the dominant reality is actually a move toward more cars. The residents of the ten cities mentioned above account for 46.8 percent of total transit commuters despite representing only 6.6 percent of total American workers. They also slightly grew their share of overall American transit ridership between 2005 and 2014.


The rest of the country moved toward cars. The number of transit users outside of those ten cities increased by 701,000, but the number of commuters driving alone to work increased by 8.8 million—more than 12 times as much. The higher percentage increase in transit users versus drivers (21 versus 9 percent) masks the fact that there are just so many more people getting to work alone in their cars.

Those 8.8 million new driving commuters are on our roads, and they will probably be joined by at least 8.8 million more driving commuters over the next decade, as well. How will they be accommodated? What other options do they actually have?

Even among the youngest members of the workforce, the pull of driving remains strong. Of the increase in workers 16 to 24 years old between 2005 and 2014, two times as many drove alone to work versus taking transit; the drive-alone mode share of commuters in that age group (70.3 percent) is practically as high as the national average (76.5 percent), though it has declined slightly from 71.5 percent in 2005.


The growth in driving, again, should not be a huge surprise. Peoples’ lives are built around the environment in which they live, and that landscape changes slowly. Neighborhoods where it was hard to get around by anything but driving 20 years ago likely have remained that way and will continue to work as such for the next 20 years. “Solving” the suburban reliance on cars in any region is impossible when communities are so spread apart and mixed uses are so limited in their availability.

Nor is a mass movement into transit-friendly center cities realistic. Between 2005 and 2014, the top ten transit cities grew their collective workforce by 1.3 million jobs—but the rest of the country increased by 11.5 million jobs. Today’s transit cities are expensive to live in and difficult to build in.

Just as importantly, we simply are not investing in improving transit systems to provide people adequate alternatives. While some regions have directed substantial sums to upgrade their urban and suburban public transportation—Denver and Seattle come to mind—many others have not; think of Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, or Tampa, where improvements have been limited at best and where sprawl and its associated road building continues virtually unabated.

How in the world can we expect people in these types of places to switch en masse away from driving when real alternatives are not being offered to them?

Ignoring the political

Much of the recent argument has revolved around the fact that road engineers have vastly overestimated the growth in car traffic, assuming that people will continue to increase their reliance on driving and thus encouraging ever more investments in road construction—even when confronted with evidence of a generational change in habits.

The logic of transportation planners is indeed detrimental to the construction of a different way to get around, and it provides empirical justification for continued pursuit of policies that are bad for our cities and ultimately bad for our country.

But the real problem is not the logic of planners; making the case to them that they should alter their metrics to reflect generational change is missing the point. Indeed, if generational change is altering the decisions about the way some people get around, it is not, in itself, nearly enough to alter the way a lot of people get around, and as the figures cited above suggest, the large majority of young people still use cars to get around. Importantly, we will go back to rampant increases in car use—and perhaps we already are—if we rely only on the hope that younger people will act differently and adjust our models to reflect that.

We must do a better job developing a political argument—an ideological claim—that can support a transition away from road building and a society built around it that works not just in the aforementioned center cities but also in the suburbs of those cities and in other regions. Only with a change in the way our society is built—meaning not only the way our transportation is planned but also the way our neighborhoods are structured—will the level of automobile use actually decline, and that change requires political support. A generational change of mindset is not enough.

A stronger political argument, adopted by people and by politicians around the goals of improving our climate and of improving our communities, followed by investments and policies that actually support reduced car use, is the only way to truly make progress on these questions. Otherwise, we’ll simply be improving the conditions of a few urban centers and ignoring the rest of the country.

* These were, in order, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Seattle, Jersey City, and Baltimore. In Washington, the transit share of total trips actually declined slightly mostly because of an even more significant increase in population and shifts to biking and working from home. In Baltimore and Los Angeles, the share of people driving alone to work increased slightly because of reduced carpooling.

Cities with the largest number of transit commuters.

PlaceTransit commuters 2014Transit share 2014Change in transit commuters 2005-2014Percent change 2005-2014
New York City2,231,97857%359,63819%
Los Angeles197,77111%26,56116%
San Francisco163,53934%38,65031%
Jersey City62,67249%16,67636%
Remainder of the U.S.4,034,5223%700,87721%
Source: U.S. Census, means of transportation to work.