Megatrend: Young people driving far less, fewer have driver's licenses, far more bicycle

Recently we reported on two megatrends that are having a huge impact on transportation planning and funding in the U.S.: After a century of super-growth, the amount of driving has leveled off over the past decade, and the amount of bicycling and walking has been increasing rather dramatically over that same decade.

To those megatrends, add a third:  The amount of young people with a driver's license in the U.S. has gone down rather dramatically in the past twenty-five years. The trend is only accelerating in recent years as the amount of driving by those under 35 has dropped by nearly a quarter.

Far fewer driver's licenses for young people now compared with 25 years ago

According to a study by University of Michigan researchers, between 1983 and 2008, the percentage of people with driver's licenses in various age groups has gone down quite dramatically:

  • 16 year olds: from 46% to 31%
  • 17 year olds: from 69% to 50%
  • 18 year olds: from 80% to 65%
  • 20-24 year olds, from 92% to 82%

Fewer driver's licenses and far less driving from 16-34 year olds in the past decade

The trend is continuing and even accelerating in recent years.  A more recent study by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, based on Federal Highway Administration data, found that the percentage of 14 to 34 year-olds without a drivers license went from 21% in 2000 to 26% in 2010.

Even more telling: The average young person (age 16-34) drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than the average young person in 2001. 

Reasons?  Cost of automobiles, insurance, and fuel; availability of alternatives; and social networking.

Far more bicycling and transit use among young people

The PIRG report says:

In 2009, 16- to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent. . . . 

From 2001 to 2009, young people (16- to 34-year-olds) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.

A reversal of a long term trend towards more driving

Whatever the reasons, this is clearly the reversal of a century-long trend towards more cars, more people with driver's licenses, and more driving in the U.S.  It is one of the contributors to the megatrends we have charted before--a leveling off in the amount of driving in the U.S. over the past decade, combined with an increase in the amount of bicycling and walking across the U.S., and particularly in Missouri, where the amount of bicycling has increased dramatically in the period 2000-2010.

The fact that young people are leading the way in these trends--bicycling and busin more, while driving less than young people of the past--is a good indication that these trends will continue and accelerate in the future.

 U.S. Vehicle Miles TraveledMissouri Bicycle Commuters, 2000-2010 

Our nation's transportation planning and funding needs to catch up with this new reality--and fast

Phineas Baxandall, Senior Transportation Analyst for U.S.PIRG Education Fund and a co-author of the U.S. PIRG report makes the same point we have been making with our elected leaders over the past several years:

America's transportation preferences appear to be changing. Our elected officials need to make transportation decisions based on the real needs of Americans in the 21st century.

How long will it take our federal, state, and local transportation planners, designers, engineers, and funders to realize and adjust for the fact that the amount of motor vehicle miles traveled is now flat, while the amount of demand for walking, bicycling, and transit is skyrocketing?

And for the fact that this trend is likely to accelerate in the future, as these non-drivers reach middle age and the group with the most drivers--the over 70 age group--reaches the age when they can no longer drive.

The U.S. PIRG report sums it up:

Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy—dominated by road building—is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans. Federal and local governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace. The changing transportation preferences of young people — and Americans overall — throw those assumptions into doubt.

Sources: AP summary of the research studies, Sun-Times summary of the research studies, University of Michigan study, U.S. PIRG Education Fund study


Photo credit:  My High School Drivers License by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious, license: Creative Commons