Mind the Gap

Millennials don’t just communicate differently from their baby boomer parents—they commute differently, too.

August 20, 2015

Photo: real.tingley/Flickr

In generations past, the conspicuous purchase of a stylish new car was, for many young professionals, a symbol of their inevitable ascendance up the corporate ladder. Landing a sweet executive-track job meant not only investing in some sharp new threads (remember: You dress for the position you want, not for the one you have) but also getting yourself behind the wheel of a vehicle that would look smooth pulling into that senior-management parking space you had your eye on since day one.

Times have certainly changed. In the white-hot tech and digital-content sectors, the dress code is likely to be blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and a gray Zuckerbergian hoodie. And if a new U.S. Census Bureau study of Americans’ commuting habits is to be believed, then driving a car to work—like donning a conservative suit or a tasteful skirt—may soon be an indelible marker of “basicness.” (Which actually constitutes a firing offense in certain corners of Silicon Valley, or so we hear.)    

At first glance, the report seems to suggest a dispiriting trend line. The authors looked at commuting patterns by private vehicle in 2013, organizing the data along various demographic lines. Then they compared their findings to similar data collected back in 2006. Among the things they learned:

  • More than three-quarters of American commuters continued to drive to work alone—with total numbers slightly higher than they were in 2006.
  • Fewer than 1 in 10 commuters carpooled to work—with numbers down more than a percentage point from seven years prior.
  • Despite the fact that cities are investing more money in public transportation than ever before, barely 1 in 20 commuters reported taking mass transit in any sort of routine manner.

I admit to sighing audibly when I read these statistics. As someone who sincerely believes that decreasing our reliance on cars is key to cutting urban air pollution, building healthier communities, and curbing climate change, I really want to feel as though we’re moving forward in this regard—not backward.

But as is the case with any large poll or comprehensive survey, you have to look at the internals to get a clear picture of what’s going on. In this instance, once you do, the forecast starts to look a lot rosier from a sustainability standpoint, with subtle yet unmistakable signs of a cultural shift on the horizon: More and more young adults appear to be ditching their car keys for Metro passes, bicycle locks, and new sneakers.

The report’s authors generally tended to note relatively small percentage changes between 2006 and 2013: a half-point of difference here, maybe two points there. For example, the percentage of African-Americans who drove alone to and from the workplace rose during that seven-year period, from 71 percent to 72 percent; over the same amount of time, the percentage of Americans—of any race or ethnicity—aged 45 to 54 who commuted to work via bicycle rose one-tenth of a percentage point, from 0.3 percent to 0.4 percent.

Photo: Richard Masoner, www.cyclelicio.us/Flickr

But an interesting thing happens once you dig deeper and look at the numbers for the younger population: Commuting by car declined by nearly 4 percent among urban workers between the ages of 25 to 29. This same group also reflected the largest increases in mass-transit and bicycle usage out of any age group. Dig yet a little deeper and things get even more interesting. Topping the list of large metro areas (500,000-plus people) that boasted the most precipitous declines in car commuting were San Francisco, Boston, and Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina—all three of which happen to be tech-sector hubs.

When the demographic field was narrowed to include only those living in cities with the most and/or best public-transportation options, automobile use among 25-to-29-year-old commuters dropped a full six percentage points. And among high-earning workers with no car at home—a.k.a. urban dwellers with white-collar jobs—the rate of commuting by bike more than doubled.

Last year, analysts from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, looked at similar data and joined the growing chorus of transit wonks who seem firmly convinced that the youngest millennials (aged 16 to 24) are “show[ing] lower rates of automobile commuting and sharper declines in automobile commuting in recent years than their older counterparts.” Furthermore, they noted, car commuting is dropping among American workers of all age groups save for one—baby boomers, aged 55 and up. Boomers, the research suggests, are the only ones who “consistently drive more since 2007.” But as this group continues to age, the Brookings authors point out, “these commuters will face a host of challenges driving and will likely need to consider more transportation options.”

Fortunately, it’s beginning to look like the children and grandchildren of all those car-reliant boomers will be making sure those other options will be available. Just as our offices—and the types of work done inside of them—have changed irrevocably within the span of a single generation, so, too, are the means by which people get to and from them. And as technology races to keep up with the constant demands of a generation of texting, gaming, Snapchatting, and Instagramming millennials, the thought of commuting in a car may soon inspire a bit of smirking and eye-rolling. You drive to work? Dude—my dad does that! I can’t even…

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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