Why Do Millennials Drive Less Than Boomers?

Driving isn't fun anymore. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A new survey published by Arity, a tech spinoff from Allstate, finds that baby boomers' attitudes about driving are different than those of millennials, but that both cohorts are spending too much time in their cars. The average American spends 335 hours in the car each year driving 6,000 miles, the equivalent of a round trip from New York to Los Angeles.

But there's a real split between what millennials think about all this vs. boomers. About 51 percent of millennials don't believe owning a car is worth the investment, while only 31 percent of baby boomers do.

Lisa Jillson, head of Amity's research and design department, tells Ashley Halsey III of The Washington Post:

"Millennials don’t see it as worth it anymore. It’s not worth the [expense of] car ownership, and traffic becomes even more of a headache," Jillson said. "Boomers are more just comfortable that 'this is the way things are,' but millennials have seen how technology can impact things for the better."

Halsey notes that millennials are more comfortable with phones and "so they have less need for face-to-face palaver than their predecessors." She also quotes a UBS report:

"Millennials also appear to prefer living closer to metropolitan areas that offer employment and convenient, on-demand services, as they tend to flourish in metropolitan areas by utilizing the Internet and mobile devices as a means of conveniently providing services and things on demand without any ownership commitment (e.g. Uber, Zipcar)."

Don't confuse demography with geography

Bonnie on scooter
Bonnie, my baby boomer big sister, likes scooters. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

There's a fundamental problem with all of this; it has nothing to do with age. Young people tend to live in more urban areas because that's where other young people are, and they want to see them in person, not on their phones. They also rent instead of own. Owning a car is more expensive and far less necessary when you live in the city because there's transit, the distances are shorter so you can also bike and walk. As Alex Steffen wrote in Worldchanging years ago:

There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

This is true whether you're young or old; that's why there are many baby boomers in cities like New York or London or Toronto who don't own cars or if they do, don't use them very much. They have lots of options. Even scooters.

However, the great majority of boomers live in the suburbs and are car-dependent. Young people who live in the suburbs are car-dependent too, and while this survey says they don't like it as much, they still drive because they don't have much of a choice. This is all about where you live, not about how old you are. It's about geography, not demography.

But demography sneaks up on you

Over time, demography kicks in. As the baby boomers age, they're going to find that they can't drive everywhere, and that they want to live the way all the cool kids do — with on-demand services like Uber, and the ability to walk to the doctor or clinic. They are going to want their kids nearby, which is a lot easier in denser communities. And as Steffen notes, we know how to fix this:

We know that density reduces driving. We know that we're capable of building really dense new neighborhoods and even of using good design, infill development and infrastructure investments to transform existing medium-low density neighborhoods into walkable compact communities. It is within our power to go much farther: to build whole metropolitan regions where the vast majority of residents live in communities that eliminate the need for daily driving, and make it possible for many people to live without private cars altogether.
Sarah Blakely
Sarah Blakely apparently does her best thinking in the car. (Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

But as this study tells us, this isn't what people necessarily want. There was a hilarious car-related story this week about Sarah Blakely, the billionaire CEO of Spanx. She's quoted on a podcast, saying she does her best thinking in the car.

I live really close to Spanx, so I've created what my friends call my 'fake commute,' and I get up an hour early before I'm supposed to go to Spanx, and I drive around aimlessly in Atlanta with my commute so that I can have my thoughts come to me.

Most takes on this study say it showed how people increasingly dislike their cars. It also indicates that 61 percent of boomers say they enjoy most of the time they spent driving. Roughly 48 percent of millennials did and 51 percent of GenXers (like Sara Blakely) did. I continue to believe this is a function of where they live, not how old they are; more boomers live in the 'burbs where the driving and parking is easier and free. So it makes sense they like it more.

The most shocking statistic in the study was the fact that "40% of survey respondents have not even tried a single alternative transportation option."

So regardless of what you do today, just make sure you're in the right place when you get older. Learn to walk — it's a terrific, healthy alternative transportation option — and while you're at it, learn how to use that Uber app, too.