Are Millennials Saving the Planet with Anti-Car Attitudes?

Glowing, unmoving, beautiful, and toxic. These are the words used to describe California traffic in the Los Angeles Times, but essentially describes driving in cities anywhere. Public officials want people to buy more cars while somehow using them less. It’s no wonder millennials appear to have a lack of excitement about driving compared to earlier, car-obsessed generations. But to some, it is a wonder. Let’s explore whether young people really are buying fewer cars, and what reasons there are for their changing behavior.

“Almost half of more than 1,000 consumers surveyed do not enjoy most of the time they spend driving, said a study by Arity…”

Chicago Tribune

Despite long-term growth in vehicular travel across the globe, travel has declined in recent years, especially during the pandemic. Contributors to the decline include economic factors such as economic recession, changes in gross domestic product, relatively high fuel prices, and unemployment. Other factors include a reduced rate of driver’s license ownership by younger people due to worsening economic situation and increased take-up of higher education opportunities, a high share of older people with reduced capacity to drive, information and communication technology replacing the need for car travel, changes in lifestyle , re-urbanization, increased urban traffic congestion, and a higher number of immigrants who tend to drive less.

External factors (e.g. fuel price, financial crisis) may be more to blame for recent reductions in travel demand than a small number of internal factors (e.g., millennials), according to one study which describes the lack of car travel in Brisbane, Australia as more of a “plateau” than a decline. Brief periods of higher CO2 emissions from cars due to lax laws on fuel efficiency, like in the European Union in 2016, can make it appear as though car travel is on the rise, even if it is not.

Millennials, many of whom will have recently graduated college, might still be too young to determine what their attitude towards car ownership will be. At least, that is the argument made in a study on millennial car-buying habits in the United Kingdom. It highlights large generational differences in owning a driving license, vehicle miles traveled, and rates of vehicle ownership. The differences were explained by variations in age or endowment (i.e., inheriting money or a car). This is true in the United States as well, where the majority of car owners’ first vehicle was a family hand-me-down. In other words, if you’re an upset parent wondering why your “lazy” teen won’t get behind the wheel – give them a car and watch ’em go!

Driving as an experience has changed. The new generation defines it as a financial and time burden and I can’t say I disagree. Nearly one third of millennials lease a car, and those who do are associated with higher household incomes. The high cost of cars, car insurance, and car repairs also make them undesirable.

Photo by Life Of Pix on

Some believe car ownership in the United States is dwindling, but it will take some time to play out. The reasons for this are (1) cars aren’t necessary anymore (2) there are too many on the roads and (3) ride-hailing is more available. Interestingly, none of these studies have linked millennial climate concerns to car-buying choices. Either scientists aren’t looking in the right places, or millennials aren’t as climate-oriented as people think. Hopefully widespread access and intuitive improvements to public transportation can lead more people away from the “never use public transportation” category and into the “use it to reduce air pollution and traffic” one in the pie chart below.

In conclusion, millennials could potentially save the planet (or at least harm it less) with anti-car attitudes, but it will take time to tell. A lack of car ownership doesn’t necessarily correlate with concern about air pollution or the climate crisis in younger drivers, but it also wasn’t a factor thoroughly considered in the car-related studies I found. Gen Z-ers (18-24 y.o.) might be the ones to watch, not millennials, for avant-garde car-buying attitudes in the twenty-first century. What are your opinions on car ownership and car travel?

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