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Cars & traffic

Sep 18, 2013

What's really putting the brakes on millennial's driving?

The reasons for the drop in driving by 20-29 year olds seem self-evident to many. So too are the appropriate policy responses. But as is so often the case, it’s not that simple

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How Sydneysiders travel, by age and region (source: Sydney Morning Herald)

The Sydney Morning Herald published a neat graphic in the car section on the weekend illustrating how Sydneysiders aged 21-30 years are turning away from driving and increasing their use of public transport (Gen Y makes a sharp turn away from driving). (1)

Ten years ago, people aged 21 to 30 in Sydney drove themselves on about 53 per cent of all trips on an average weekday. That share fell almost eight percentage points to 45.5 per cent in 2011-12.

In a related article, the paper’s Transport Reporter, Jacob Saulwick, reckons the data proves Prime Minister Tony Abbott should reverse his decision to withhold Commonwealth funding from urban public transport.

I’ve discussed the fall in car use by Gen Y a number of times before (e.g. here, here and here). There’s a long list of possible explanations (see Why are Australians driving less than they used to?) but not much agreement on what the key ones are.

The Herald reports that experts say the change is most likely due to the high cost of car ownership and operation, as well as to “the widespread use of mobile devices, which are more attractive on public transport”.

While the cost of owning and operating cars is likely to be in there somewhere (but the importance of smart phones is trivial), as usual it’s a much more complex phenomenon.

One of the better studies I’ve seen compares the trend in travel behaviour of young people in six industrialised countries over the last 20 years: Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, Norway and the USA. It was done by a team led by Tobias Kuhnimhof from the Institute for Mobility Research in Munich (and includes prominent cycling researcher, Ralph Buehler).

I reviewed a pre-publication version of the paper last year (Are millennials driving less?) and it’s worth recalling the key findings in the light of the new data for Sydney presented by the Herald. The researchers say that since the turn of the millennium:

Access to cars, measured in terms of drivers’ licences and household car ownership, has decreased in most study countries—especially for young men.

Average daily car travel distance has decreased in most study countries, again especially for young men. Although not in all countries – young men now drive more in Norway.

Kilometres driven by millennial women also fell. However the fall was generally smaller than that for young men and wasn’t observed in all countries. In particular, there was barely any change in France and Japan.

One consequence is that American and German women of this generation now drive as much as their male counterparts. This is a turnaround from the nineties when young men in those countries drove noticeably more.

In France, Japan, and most significantly in the USA, the decrease in car travel has led to a reduction in total everyday travel (i.e. all modes) by young travellers.

In Great Britain, the decline in car travel by millennials was partly, and in Germany fully, compensated by an increased use of alternative modes of transport. However in France, Japan and (especially) the US, this was not the case – the decline in driving resulted in a fall in total travel.

Kuhnimhof et al think broad social changes are the primary explanation for the travel trends they identify. They cite factors like more young adults in tertiary education, lower workforce participation, and starting families at a later age, as contributing to “a larger share of young people being in a life situation in which they are less prone to car ownership or use.”

Contrary to the advice tendered to the Herald, they think smart phones have negligible impact on the changes. I think that should be self-evident and have said so before (Is the iPhone why Gen Y love public transport?).

They also found that better public transport was an important explanation for the decline in driving in only two countries, Germany and the UK. It is especially important in Germany though, where the shift to other modes explains around a third of the decrease in car travel between 1998 and 2008 (they say the other two thirds is attributable to structural factors).

Dr David King from Columbia University’s Transportation Research Centre argues that the decline in driving and auto ownership in the US is unlikely to be related significantly to changes in land use or the built environment.

A decline in the utility of driving helps explain why we aren’t seeing the reduction in miles (km) travelled show up elsewhere. The trips not taken have not been replaced. They are mostly just forgone. While it is true that transit trips have increased while driving has declined, the increase in transit usage doesn’t come close to matching the reduction in auto travel.

Urban policy-makers and managers need to be confident they really understand the underlying forces driving the reduction in driving in their cities. They need to be wary of jumping to simple conclusions.

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  1. Take care: not all the scales on the SMH’s graphic are the same (but at least they all show the zero point). Perhaps this isn’t the best graphic method to use? Or perhaps some things are too complex to present graphically and be confident readers won’t misunderstand the meaning?

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