By Eric Jaffe, November 1, 2013
Evelyn Blumenberg, the chair of urban planning at UCLA's Luskin School
of Public Affairs, doesn't buy the theory that Millennials are traveling
less because they're using technology more. She's seen the recent
reports making these claims, but she's also seen a strong case study in
the form of her own teenage children. "They are completely reliant on
their phones," she says. "But they also travel a lot."
Personal anecdotes aside, there's also the data. As part of a massive study on Millennial travel behavior published last year [PDF],
Blumenberg and collaborators analyzed national travel behavior from
1990, 2001, and 2009. They concluded that the recent recession explained
most of the decline in youth travel, and that the only effect
technology seemed to have — if there were any effect at all — was to increase it.
"I don't know why we're so focused on the idea that technology is going
to necessarily be a substitute for travel," says Blumenberg. "In our
models, it does not prove to be the case."
The connection between driving habits and technology has always been a
conceptually tricky one. On one hand, telecommuting could eliminate some
drives to work and real-time transit data could entice people off the
roads. On the other hand, e-commerce can actually increase congestion,
a good online review can encourage a trip into town, and ride-sharing
services can turn everyone with a car into a taxi driver. Our Emily
Badger captured this curious link best: "people are driving less because of … apps?"
In their research, Blumenberg and colleagues found that, over time,
Millennials were indeed traveling less than previous generations had at
the same age: taking 4 percent fewer trips and going 18 percent fewer
miles. But when young people did travel, they tended to travel
by car. Not only did most young people drive to work alone, but the
commute share of young solo drivers (below, in light purple) actually
rose between 2001 and 2009:
The results with social trips weren't much different. Carpooling was
much more common than single-occupancy driving in social situations, but
cars were still the clear mode of choice. And while alternative
transport modes (below, blue, green, and yellow) did gain some ground
among young people over the years, the same was true for older people:
As for technology, daily Internet use — as measured by the two most
recent national transportation surveys — had no effect on travel in
2001 and was associated with an increase in miles traveled across all
ages in 2009. In other words, Millennial or not, technology encouraged
travel rather than replacing trips. For the average person across the
country, more travel means more driving.
"I think there's a sense that we want to be optimistic about reduced
travel and trying to cut down on those environmental problems," she
says. "But I think we don't want a false sense."
The true situation might seem discouraging, but Blumenberg and her
s also see it as a challenge. After all, it isn't travel
per se that's damaging to metro areas, it's car travel in particular.
If urban planners can use technology to promote alternative transport
modes or at least multi-modal systems, cities will be better off for
Millennials and other generations to come.
In many environments, cars provide the greatest access, Blumenberg
says. "It puts the burden on planners to try to change environments in
such a way that using those alternative modes of travel start to
approximate the kind of accessibility you have with an automobile."