Tapping the brakes
Younger people and the shift away from driving
Published: September 19, 2012
Jimmy Schroeder has been seeking adventures since graduating high school five years ago. That's why when the chance came to move into a friend's apartment in the New Center area of Detroit, the 23-year-old Battle Creek native didn't think twice. He gathered his belongings, rented a moving truck, and headed eastbound on I-94.
He's been living in the city since March. And, like a growing number of young people, Schroeder is pursuing his urban adventure without an automobile.
Part of the reason is economics: His car broke down, and purchasing a new vehicle and then covering the associated costs — keeping it filled with gas, paying for insurance and oil changes, etc. — were expenses he figured he'd be better off avoiding.
There's more to it than just that, though. Not having a car, he says, "makes you appreciate more of the little things. It's a good way to get around."
Living in the city is key to making things work.
"I have pretty much everything I need close by," he says, "That's the big thing missing from suburbs. In suburban areas you're just kinda there."
Although he says it took him three months to visit his parents, Schroeder now frequently makes the trip via Amtrak, whose Detroit station is conveniently located two blocks from his apartment. A one-way ticket runs him $24.
To make the trip to Battle Creek from Detroit in his old 1998 Mercury Sable would've cost about as much.
Schroeder is far from alone when it comes to scaling back automobile use.
A recent study by the Frontier Group, an environmental think tank, and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that, in 2009, people between the ages of 16 and 34 had cut the number of miles driven by 23 percent when compared to 2001. Decreases for Gen X and Baby Boomers were more modest.
More notably, they are waiting longer to get their driver's licenses ... if at all.
New data from the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Census — including a study conducted by Michael Sivak and Brandon Scolette of the University of Michigan — showed that 87 percent of 19-year-olds in 1983 had a driver's license; by 2010 that number had fallen to about 70 percent. For 18-year-olds, it dropped from 80 percent to 60 percent, for 17-year-olds from 69 percent to 45 percent. For drivers in their 20s, it dropped about 10 percent.
The findings, as Sivak described them in an e-mail, should be of interest to governmental regulators and automakers because the trend has "widespread consequences."
"Government regulators have interest in these trends because driver age has a strong effect on crash rates with the youngest drivers having the highest crash rates per mile driven," Sivak says.
Sivak and Scolette's study found four probable reasons young people are more likely now to put getting a driver's license on the backburner:
• The Internet and virtual contact have reduced the need for actual contact.
• Tough economic times.
• Young people are migrating to cities with reliable public transportation.
• Environmental concerns.
The effect of the Internet on driving is significant, Sivak says. The study he and Scolette conducted found a definite correlation between use of the Web and a desire to drive in various countries; where Internet use is up (in terms of the number of people accessing it), licensure rates are down.
The Internet, Sivak explains, has two effects: "The Internet has the potential to find things more efficiently, without having to drive around. Furthermore, some young people feel that driving interferes with texting."
That's not just speculation. A study recently conducted by Zipcar, a car-sharing rental service, and KRC Research, a market research firm, found that 54 percent of younger people polled preferred to spend time on the Internet talking to friends rather than driving to meet up with them.
One might also argue that the rising costs of maintaining a car, coupled with college tuition costs that are continuing to rise, has created a shift among millennials, who might not be in a hurry to settle down. The ceremonial age of 16 is, in a sense, being demoted to simply another year gone by.
A Department of Transportation study showed the number of 16-year-olds in the United States who obtained a driver's license dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent between 1978 and 2008.
"There are some economic-cycle factors involved as well, such as the current unemployment rate and cost of ownership of a car versus disposable income today," observes Mark Wakefield, director of AlixPartners LLP, a consulting firm based in Southfield. "And, on the longer-term trend side, continued urbanization is having an impact, making it less fun to drive and driving less of an 'event' for city-dwelling Gen N's." (That's Gen N meaning "neutral about driving.")
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