In many metros, young people today commute by car as often as they did in 1980.
By Eric Jaffe, December 8, 2014
It's become an uncontested truth that young Americans dislike driving, and indeed, Millennials do seem more fond of public transportation than their elders are. But a new Census tool
comparing 18-to-34 year olds now and in the past raises questions about
just how much things have changed. In many major U.S. metro areas,
young people today drive to work as often as they did in 1980, if not
Late last week, the Census released "Young Adults: Then and Now," an interactive map
outlining social trends among 18-to-34 year olds at four different
moments: 1980, 1990, 2000, and today (more precisely, the 2009-2013
American Community Survey). One of those trends highlights the share of
this population that gets to work by car. Using the raw data, we took
the 25 most-populated metros today and compared commuting figures of
Millennials to those of young people circa 1980.
First, a quick frame of reference for the country as a whole. In
1980, 83.8 percent of young Americans got to work in a car or a carpool.
Today, 84.5 percent of Millennials say the same. That's a very modest
rise in the share of young adults driving to work—and it's a drop from
figures in 1990 (85.6 percent) and 2000 (86.7 percent)—but it's an
Now let's drill down into the 25 major metros. True to recent wisdom
on Millennial driving patterns, nine of these places showed a decline in
car commuting among young people today compared with 1980. New York
experienced the biggest shift, with a 9.4 percent decrease in car share
that actually puts driving in the minority, followed by Boston (7.8
percent), San Francisco (4.6 percent), and Portland (4.3). Washington,
D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles, Charlotte, and Miami round out the list.
metros barely moved the commuting needle, with young car shares today
falling within one percentage point of 1980 figures. Three of these
metros saw car shares decline ever so slightly: Tampa, Houston, and
Denver. The rest saw them increase a smidge: Atlanta, Detroit, Phoenix,
Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago—with Millennials in the latter two cities
driving almost a full percent more despite considerable transit upgrades
in the past 30 years.
The data also show that in seven metros, younger Americans drive to work at greater
shares today than they did three decades ago. The biggest rise occurred
in San Diego (8.1 percent), followed by San Antonio (4.8 percent) and
Baltimore (3.6 percent). Car-commute shares among young people in
Minneapolis, Riverside (California), St. Louis, and Pittsburgh all
jumped between 1 and 3 percent over the years.
So the notion that Millennials are spurning cars across the board is clearly oversimplified.
In many big cities, young people today are commuting in much the same
way they did three decades ago—tape decks notwithstanding.
That's not to say Millennial driving habits aren't changing. They clearly are changing for a number of reasons (incredible shrinking incomes perhaps chief among them). Carmakers recognize as much; hence, the rise of the dashboard selfie.
From the perspective of city mobility, it's at least encouraging that
many of the metros pushing hardest for alternative transportation
options have seen the biggest declines in car commuting among young
people—but it's also important not to forget
that even within this transit-friendly segment of the population, in
every place but New York, most Americans still get to work by car.