More Young Adults in Cities Are Giving Up on Driving to Work

Probably doesn’t live in a city.

Photo by wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock

Millennials, let’s be honest, are pretty cheap. Blame the Great Recession; blame crushing student debt; blame shifts in spending and saving habits; blame the on-demand economy. Then consider this hotly debated question: Is all this thriftiness causing today’s twenty- and young-thirtysomethings to abandon car ownership?

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson thinks not; my Slate colleague Jordan Weissmann has mulled a couple different sources of auto data and is less sure. So here’s a related point to consider, courtesy of a newly released census report on commuting patterns in the United States: Young people in big cities were significantly less likely to drive to work in 2013 than they were several years earlier. To be specific, in the 10 U.S. cities with the most public transportation activity, automobile commuting declined by 6 percentage points for workers ages 25 to 29 years old from 2006 to 2013, and by 4 percentage points for those 16 to 24 and 30 to 34.

Nationwide, the percentage of young adults driving cars to and from work ticked up slightly—the number of 16- to 24-year-olds “driving alone” in 2013 was 1 percentage point higher than in 2006, and it was 0.2 percentage points higher for 25- to 29-year-olds (though accounting for the report’s margin of error, that latter data point doesn’t look too significant). More notable was what young people nationwide started to do instead of driving. “The three youngest age groups experienced an increase in commuting by public transportation,” the census reports. “Younger workers also showed notable increases in bicycle commuting.”

But let’s go back to auto commuting in cities with strong public transportation systems, which is the more interesting point here. You can think of a few obvious reasons why routinely driving a car to a job in one of those areas (which presumably means you own said car) is getting less popular. For starters, parking and maintaining a car in a city is expensive and time-consuming. Second, young people in cities probably aren’t going to get as much use out of their cars as, say, older people with families (or teenagers who can still use the cars their parents have). Third, transportation is changing, and in cities it’s changing fastest. Between 2006 and 2013, smartphones contributed to the rise of popular on-demand ride platforms like Uber and Lyft, which the companies have marketed as alternatives to car ownership. (“This is our ultimate vision for the future,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said. “Smarter transportation with fewer cars and greater access.”)

All of that might explain why those ages 25 to 29 in cities with good public transit saw the steepest decline in automobile commuting, and why members of that age group living in cities also had the lowest rate of vehicle accessibility. Give young people a solid public transportation option—or a reliable ride technology—and chances are they’ll take it.