Transportation and the New Generation

Why Young People Are Driving Less and What It Means for Transportation Policy

The United States is in the midst of the longest decline in driving since World War II, with the greatest reduction in driving occurring among young people. Transportation and the New Generation explores the reasons why young people are driving less and the implications for transportation policy in the United States. 


NJPIRG Law and Policy Center


From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the century, something changed: Americans began driving less. By 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004. (See Figure ES-1.)

Figure ES-1: Vehicle-Miles Traveled Per Capita Peaked in 2004

The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 and 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting – even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons – higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences – all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.

Federal and local governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw those assumptions into doubt. The time has come for transportation policy to reflect the needs and desires of today’s Americans – not the worn-out conventional wisdom from days gone by.

America’s young people are decreasing the amount they drive and increasing their use of transportation alternatives.

  • According to the National Household Travel Survey, from 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent.
  • In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.
  • In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds walked to destinations 16 percent more frequently than did 16 to 34-year-olds living in 2001.
  • From 2001 to 2009, the number of passenger-miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds on public transit increased by 40 percent.
  • According to Federal Highway Administration, from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.

Young people’s transportation priorities and preferences differ from those of older generations.

  • Many young people choose to replace driving with alternative transportation. According to a recent survey by KRC Research and Zipcar, 45 percent of young people (18-34 years old) polled said they have consciously made an effort to replace driving with transportation alternatives – this is compared with approximately 32 percent of all older populations.
  • Many of America’s youth prefer to live places where they can easily walk, bike, and take public transportation. According to a recent study by the National Association for Realtors, young people are the generation most likely to prefer to live in an area characterized by nearby shopping, restaurants, schools, and public transportation as opposed to sprawl.
  • Some young people purposely reduce their driving in an effort to curb their environmental impact. In the KRC Zipcar survey, 16 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds polled said they strongly agreed with the statement, “I want to protect the environment, so I drive less.” This is compared to approximately 9 percent of older generations.

The trend toward reduced driving among young people is likely to persist as a result of technological changes and increased legal and financial barriers to driving.


  • Communications technology, which provides young people with new social networking and recreational possibilities, has become a substitute for some car trips.
  • Improvements in technology make transportation alternatives more convenient. Websites and smart phone apps that provide real-time transit data make public transportation easier to use, particularly for infrequent users. Meanwhile, technology has opened the door for new transportation alternatives, such as the car-sharing and bike-sharing services that have taken root in numerous American cities.
  • Public transportation is more compatible with a lifestyle based on mobility and peer-to-peer connectivity than driving. Bus and train riders can often talk on the phone, text or work safely while riding, while many state governments are outlawing using mobile devices while driving. Currently, 35 states have outlawed texting while driving, and nine states have outlawed handheld cell phone use while driving. These bans may not be enough to ensure safety – in December 2011 the National Transportation Safety Board recommended banning cell phone use while driving entirely.

Changes in driving laws: From 1996 to 2006, every state enacted Graduated Drivers’ Licensing (GDL) laws. GDL laws, which are designed to keep young people safe, also make obtaining a driver’s license more challenging. Young people must now take more behind-the-wheel training (which is more expensive), fulfill additional requirements for permits, and once they are allowed to drive, they are often restricted to driving in the daytime without passengers. GDL laws are likely to remain in effect – and continue to be a deterrent to young people to apply for licenses – because they have been successful in keeping young drivers safe.

Increased fuel prices: Increased fuel prices have made driving more expensive, reducing the frequency with which people – especially younger people with less disposable income – travel in cars. The average cost for filling up the tank in 2001 was $1,100 for the year (in 2011 dollars). With gasoline prices soaring since then, filling up the same tank today costs $2,300. While gasoline prices often fluctuate, they are unlikely to return to the low levels of 1980s or 1990s. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s projections, gas prices are expected to increase by 26 percent from 2010 to 2020.

The recession has played a role in reducing the miles driven in America, especially by young people. People who are unemployed or underemployed have difficulty affording cars, commute to work less frequently if at all, and have less disposable income to spend on traveling for vacation and other entertainment. The trend toward reduced driving, however, has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially.

The average young person (age 16-34) with a job drove 10,700 miles in 2009, compared with 12,800 miles in 2001.
From 2001 to 2009, young people (16-34 years old) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.
America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw that assumption into doubt. Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy – dominated by road building – is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans. It is time for policy-makers to consider the implication of changes in driving habits for the nation’s transportation infrastructure decisions and funding practices, and consider a new vision for transportation policy that reflects the needs of 21st century America.