MINNEAPOLIS – Consider Jake Gau a multimodal millennial.
On chillier mornings, the 25-year-old rehabilitation aide hops on the No. 30 bus in northeast Minneapolis bound for his job at a rehabilitation center. On warmer days, he pedals his mountain bike to work.
Noticeably missing from his array of transportation options – a car. And that’s just fine with him.
Much of the millennial generation – roughly 77 million Americans born between 1983 and 2000 – is decidedly lukewarm when it comes to Americans’ century-long love affair with the automobile. They appear to prefer biking, walking, taking mass transit and sharing cars, exhibiting behavior that could have a profound effect on transportation and land-use policies for years to come.
“Transportation policy tends to be a generation behind, we’re still trying to build our grandfather’s interstate highway system,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with the consumer group U.S. PIRG. Policymakers should not only accommodate Gen Y’s desire to drive less, but encourage it, he said.
Entering adulthood during the most recent recession, many millennials are too debt-laden and underemployed to afford a car. They see mass transit, biking and walking as not only cheaper, but also good for their health and the environment.
Gau, for example, often walks several miles in the final leg of his commute. Whippet-thin, he says it’s “a great workout. I’m calmer; it’s a great way to start and end my day.” Whether he’s part of the mittened masses on the bus or pedaling solo, he observes commuters alone in their cars.
“They seem really stressed out,” he said.
In the past decade, more and more young people have chosen to drive less – in stark contrast to the Gen X and baby boomer generations, where a driver’s license was the ticket to adulthood and freedom from their parents.
According to a 2013 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, less than half (about 44 percent) of teens obtain a driver’s license within 12 months of the minimum age for licensing in their respective state. Roughly 54 percent are licensed before their 18th birthday. AAA says the findings are a significant drop from two decades ago, when two-thirds of teens were licensed by the time they were 18.
The reasons for the decline likely include the rise of telecommuting, online commerce, housing options that tout walkability and social media.
“People are more connected now, it’s easier to reach out to your friends,” said Lacey Plache, chief economist for the auto website Edmunds.com. “It’s less likely that (millennials) will gather up their friends and go cruising,” as was the case with previous generations.
The recession that hit in 2008 slowed economic growth, particularly for millennials entering the workforce, Plache said. For someone still camped in his parents’ basement, buying a car doesn’t seem terribly practical.
“Millennials are not driving much, and it seems to come down to cost,” said Michael Green, AAA spokesman. “The weakness in the economy has disproportionately affected millennials, and owning a car can cost money, plus gas and maintenance.”
Whether the delayed-driving trend will reverse once millennials enter their peak employment and child-rearing years – ages 35 to 54 when driving tops out – remains to be seen.
But don’t rule out the allure of the car, at least to some millennials.
An analysis released by the research firm J.D. Power indicates that Gen Y (defined in the report as people born between 1977 and 1994) now account for a larger percentage of U.S. new-vehicle sales than Generation X. (Baby boomers, however, still remain the biggest buying bloc.)
As of July, Gen Y buyers accounted for 26 percent of new auto sales for the year, slightly above 24 percent for Generation X. This year, Gen Y sales are expected to grow 17 percent, a surge auto analysts attribute to these young consumers entering new life stages as their income increases and families grow.