Trying to predict the future driving habits of millennials

The auto industry and suburbs might be at stake: as millennials age, will they continue to drive less than their parents?

“We’ve basically assumed in transportation planning for decades upon decades that the amount of vehicle travel and per capita VMT can go in only one direction, and that’s up,” says Tony Dutzik, a senior policy analyst for the Frontier Group, a public interest think tank. “And we have been planning our transportation system based on that assumption.”

Data from the last few years clearly show that this axiom is no longer true. So what happens next? In an effort to at least sketch out some of the possible scenarios, the Frontier Group and the US PIRG Education Fund today released a report outlining three alternative futures for America’s relationship to the car.

One assumes that Millennials will eventually revert to the driving patterns of their parents (the blue “Back to the Future” scenario on the below graph). The second assumes that America is in the midst of an enduring shift toward less driving, brought about in large part by the permanent new preferences of Millennials. And the last scenario assumes that the recent decline we’ve seen in driving will continue apace…

The other two scenarios are built on something of a mystery. Researchers have not yet been able to disaggregate how much of our current decline in driving has been attributable to gas prices, or the economy, or changing attitudes toward car ownership or urban living. But it’s been driven by something. And in these two futures, Dutzik says, “whatever constellation of things it is that has caused the shift in per capita driving over the last decade – we think that’s a real thing.”…

Millennials will inevitably wind up driving more than they do today as they age. This is virtually always true of people in their 20s as they enter their 30s and beyond. Certain stages of life demand more use of a car than others. But the question is: by how much? And by how much compared to their parents?

I don’t envy those trying to make these projections when there are a number of unknowns. And, if Millennials are not driving, how are they commuting (or working from home) instead? A lot of money could be at stake in these future patterns, whether it is spent on maintaining existing infrastructure or providing new options (like denser suburbs, more mass transit, more biking opportunities, etc.).

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