I refuse to conform to your car culture.
Shutterstock
I refuse to conform to your car culture.

At Grist, we’ve been onto the trend of the youngs losing interest in driving for awhile now. And every time a new study or survey comes out to statistically corroborate the anecdotal evidence we see every day, we hear the same responses from skeptics — it’s just the economy, just a stage of life. Wait til those millennials get real jobs, get married, have families, and move to the suburbs. Then you bet they’ll start driving.

But the latest report on declining driving trends — released today by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund — argues that a rejection of car culture is here to stay. “The Driving Boom is over,” it declares. In fact, the report calculates that “If the Millennial-led decline in per-capita driving continues for another dozen years … total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040 — despite a 21 percent increase in population.”

The U.S. PIRG study reveals how, after six decades of steady growth, both total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and VMT per capita have been falling since 2007. Total VMT is now at 2004 levels, while VMT per capita has fallen to 1996 levels. And once again, it’s those meddling millennials who are reimagining one of the pillars of American culture. Young people ages 16 to 34 drove an average of 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001, according to the report. If you consider that more than half the people in that age group were old enough to drive in 2001, too, that suggests that even as those at the older end of this generation enter their 30s — presumably settling into more stable jobs and in some cases starting families — they’re still not switching over to a car-centric lifestyle at the same rate as generations before them.

Economic factors — high gas prices, the recession — obviously motivate people of all ages to drive less. But, as we’ve pointed out before, larger societal shifts lie behind millennials’ generation-wide “meh” attitude toward car ownership. Brian Merchant at Vice summarizes them in two words: Facebook and Brooklyn.

To expand on that slightly: Technology lets people socialize without being physically in the same place. And when they do leave the house to hang with friends IRL, kids these days would rather walk, bike, bus, train, longboard, or — if those options prove impossible — car-share to get there. That’s why millennials are flocking to communities that cater to a walkable, urban lifestyle, and why even historically unhip towns like Charlotte, N.C. — the setting for The New York Times’ coverage of the U.S. PIRG study — are now modeling themselves more in Brooklyn’s image, “filling in the urban core with new development and encouraging new construction along major transportation corridors, including an expanding rail line.” (Charlotte’s transit-happy mayor, Anthony Foxx, is Obama’s pick for transportation secretary.)

Merchant explains why Facebook and Brooklyn could solidify the decline in driving into a lasting trend:

As more folks from the affluent 18-34 demographic settle in cities, the need for cars will diminish. More parents simply won’t own them. Which means the physical barriers to socializing erected by the suburbs will thus never be put in place, and teens won’t need to overcome them to feel liberated. Meanwhile, social media will still be providing alternative channels for interaction.

The prospect of driving, after all, is only exciting if there are places you’re dying to go. Growing up in a place where all of your friends and activities are already within walking distance, and being able to bridge the rest of the gaps online—gaming, gossiping, etc—may hopelessly antiquate that four-cylinder headrush.

I knew a few folks in college who, having grown up in Manhattan or San Francisco, simply never learned to drive — there was no reason to. I found this exceedingly strange at the time, but Merchant’s point is that as millennials lead a larger cultural shift in our lifestyle values, and more cities adapt to their preferences, those license-less kids will become more the rule than the exception.

Which means, as the report points out, “The time has come for America to hit the ‘reset’ button on transportation policy” — repair existing roads and bridges instead of build new ones; focus resources on mass transit and bike infrastructure, as Charlotte is doing; and support the development of walkable neighborhoods.

The consequences of a transportation policy “stuck in the past,” as the report puts it, are not only costly, but tragic. Texting while driving has replaced drunk driving as the No. 1 cause of teenage death on the road, which no doubt has something to do with the smartphone replacing the car as the most important vehicle for teenage freedom. Just as improved transit options reduce the temptation to drive drunk, so too do they eliminate the temptation to text behind the wheel.