Why are younger Americans driving less?

Brad Plumer considers several good hypotheses, including the recession, gas prices, student debt, tougher legal requirements, and a stronger desire to live in places such as Brooklyn.  I would add one other factor to his list: because they are working less.  A more speculative additional hypothesis would be “because it is easier to have sex without driving to get it.”


"Stronger desire to live in places such as Brooklyn" feeds into status signaling too. I got my driver's license in 1995 in Bergen County (Burden County if you're British!) New Jersey. My motivation was about 25% utility and 75% status signaling. Take away the status and most of the motivation goes away.

This applies to the sex hypothesis too of course.

Speaking for my generation and typing this in Brooklyn :-), I'd like to point out that literally all life choices are status signalling. But this trend specifically is a reaction to our parents' status obsession with giant houses and 3 cars at the ends of the earth.

When my parents moved to an exurb it felt to me like being in jail or something. As a teenager was extremely painful to socialize, go to the grocery store, or really do anything besides tend to my parents' giant gardening setup and enormous lawn. Tyler would apparently point out that this was bad for my reproductive prospects. Now at 27 I've never owned a car or lived anywhere where I'd need one. There's obviously much more to my choice than utility, but at the same time I think my choices have been much more practical than my parents'.

This comment is a great argument for parents to move to exurbs.

Also, I don't think you meant "reproductive." Brooklyn is almost certainly bad for your reproductive prospects.

This comment is a great argument for why parents should move to the exurbs.

Also, I don't think you meant "reproductive." Brooklyn is almost certainly bad for your reproductive prospects.

It's actually kind of a fun thing about reading this blog that I get access a bunch of middle age people's point of view :-)

Do think down the line though, presumably you want your children to visit you later once they've escaped your clutches.

I lived 12 years in Boston with no car, and 4 in San Francisco before finally having to cave and get one. Quiet a nuisance to go back. Visiting the family in Virginia and experiencing the suburban perspective (lets drive 30 minutes out of the way to save 5 bucks on junk!) is death. Northern Virginia has all these ridiculous town center things going on to make the area walkable, although they seem to be missing sidewalks in most the places...


No on in Northern Virginia drives anywhere, there's too much traffic

This is the first time I've ever been called middle aged...

I think you might be projecting, though. Revealed preference is heavily in favor of suburbia. Obviously people are diverse; some like drinking and some like soccer. One's easier to do in the city, one's easier to do in the suburbs. But surely before roughly 15, growing up in a city is hell?

Not if--how to put this--the kid is like you.

"because its easier to have sex without driving to get it."

Uh... without trying to delve into too many details here... can you expound on this? Are we talking about sex or its substitutes?

I see two plausible dissertation papers: "Internet Porn and the Substitution Effects on US Automobile Fatalities." Alternatively, "Social Network and Reduced Transaction Costs/Efficiency Gains in Mating."

Please advise.

With social media hook up locally rather than drive to next town to meet your "girlfriend," etc.

More like, living in dense areas means you can walk, bike, or take public transit pretty easily to the person's place.

I'm sure there are some small towners who maybe get action marginally more locally now, but the reason they went the next couple towns over before is that there just wasn't many people, compatible or otherwise, nearby. Plus, there just aren't that many people living in small towns.

Also cohabitation.

I don't entirely follow. The local "hook ups" were the only options 25 years ago. It was very costly to get to know people further away as a means of facilitating sex.

Social networking reduces the costs of meeting people further away... Teenagers aren't just limited to the other teenagers in their neighborhood. With more options at further distances, cars could become more important. Is it right to assume that 25 years ago young people were just ignorant of all these local, available sexual exploits before the internet? If so, what are the implications on the efficient markets hypothesis?

If you think teenagers are screwing locally more now, then maybe its because people are... umm... more morally casual. It's a supply question. Not sure the answer is that Facebook is getting people laid a lot closer to home these days.

Speaking as someone who drove avidly since age 16, it's not just the local mating but the hyperlocal mating. There was a time when teen mating was enabled by the mobile bedroom and the drive-in movie. Now, many teens can accomplish the same thing in mom and dad's house.

But, my girlfriend lives in Canada.

That dissertation has also been turned into a work of fiction: "Crash" by Ballard.

Why is everyone failing to take into account that a boyfriend with a car is infinitely more attractive to a female than a boyfriend without a car?

More license suspensions.

a guy in WP site mentioned another reason: insurance. If parents have to pay $250 every month so the teen can drive, I wouldn't call it an incentive.


This. Insurance for under-18s is now a greater component of the total cost of driving than fuel, maintenance, or even depreciation.

When my parents were kids, they drove around in awesome glamorous 50s automobiles with fins or whatever. When they were teenagers they drove fast, V8 hot rods that they could soup up in the driveway. Cars were freedom, cars were cool, cars were the American dream.

When I was a kid my dad drove a POS Oldsmobile that he cursed every day for its unreliability. I got older and got a Honda Civic hatchback that never broke down but never turned any heads. Cars at best were an appliance that made life a little easier, at worst they were an inconvenience that required frequent repairs and expensive gas.

I'm not surprised driving is down, the whole attitude towards cars among the younger generations is different.

You tapped into the spirit of the phenomena here.

Driving as an act of autonomy/individualism is the first of the building blocks of pre-cyber civilization to take a tumble. Those of us 45+ are best situated to have been witnesses to the evolution. When I turned 15 1/2, I was in line for my learner's permit immediately. My high school offered a driving simulator and no one cared that my first car (at the time) was a 6-year-old 1974 Ford Maverick that looked like it had been scraped off the bottom side of an outhouse. I could drive my friends around and I cowed to know one; this is what mattered. We weren't so digitally refined.

My son does not want to drive because he is afraid. The Nanny State has thoroughly quashed that childish sense of adventure that made my life worth living when I really just wanted to slit my wrists.

I'm in the same generation. I bought my first car, a POS 1975 Chevy Chevette, when I was 15. On my 16th birthday, it snowed and school was canceled. I called around and found out the DMV station near the airport was still open and convinced my mom to drive me over so I could get my license. I drove to school the very next day.

My son does not want to drive because he is afraid. The Nanny State has thoroughly quashed that childish sense of adventure that made my life worth living when I really just wanted to slit my wrists.

The automatic kneejerk response to blame the nanny state gets annoying. Bike riding, which is "scarier" than driving, is up. Walking is up. Using public transportation, which is the scariest thing in the world, up. Also, don't really know what part of the nanny state bombarded your kid with messages of how scary driving is.

Plus, there's hardly anything more nanny statish than big city public transit.

more people used big city public transit pre-Nanny state (assuming we're defining these glorious 50s and 60s as the pre-nanny state times of the automobile)

As someone who bikes and takes public transit in Boston regularly, biking is about 10 times scarier (but I hope still life extending on average; it's certainly faster than taking the bus).

Bike riding in children is down.

Honestly I will blame you, not the nanny state. We get the nanny state because we as parents demand it.

If your son is afraid of driving now you have a lot of problems ahead of you.

I don't see this. If you own a car you can go drive it out to national parks and go camping, which is a major bonus in terms of boyfriend utility. Who wants to date a loser who doesn't even have a car to take you to the beach in. Not being able to leave town for a weekend trip is a major lifestyle impairment. Even total hipsters need a friend with a vehicle so they can get out of town to go to beach parties or whatever.

1. Immigration -- illegals know it is dangerous to drive and get pulled over.

2. sex -- well, jacking off.

3. jobs --biggest, and middle class teen jobs have evaporated. Biggest reason to get a car under 18 is to drive to school and drive to work. Middle class kids too buys to work now. Lower class kids have no jobs.

IN terms of cars being better back then, those were not the cars teen agers were driving. Those were aspirational. Cars are still aspirational, but for different crowds (arabs/middle eastern/ other recent immigrants). I don't see many white kids driving a 550 in Arlington. I see plenty of brown kids who do.

The article hits the high points I think. The "cultural" component is strong. The younger friends I know make a point of living closer to where they go/work - bike or walk more often when they can - gather in places closer to their homes/apartments (much more likely to even live with friends even when economically they could have their own place) and use tech more to communicate vs. face to face. They're not as likely to live in the burbs like myself. They do tend to take more distant travel trips than older folks though (including international travel) - so not sure how that figures into the equation.

I think there is a connection to international travel.
I got rid of my car - http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/car-free-by-choice/ - and saved several thousand $$ every year, which I rather spend on trips around the world.

I would add to the list increased congestion and driving times. Interesting speculations.

As I try to drill down to see where this data comes from, I get to the National Household Travel Survey which is conducted every 5-8 years. The latest one is 2009 and the prior was 2001. I wonder if this data is detailed enough or collected often enough to support the observations being made. I need to take a look at the survey to get a better fix.

I took another look and it appears that the survey was done almost exclusively by using landline numbers. Is it possible that they really did not reach many younger drivers?


Presumably they could statically correct for that bias, but it is strong and getting stronger particularly among the young cohort.

I think we're to the point where a survey that covers only land lines is effectively useless. In my cohort of friends (mostly fellow graduate students in their late 20s, early 30s), literally the only people with landlines are the ones with kids. Nobody else has them.

You can observe a similar trend in energy consumption per sector:
(down 10% since the peak in 07', essentially flat over 05'-07')

I think "sex" over-simplifies it. Sex is just one form of the larger category known as "social interaction."

Back in the old days, there were really only two ways to interact socially, in person or on the phone. The teenager always on the phone is the quintessential old stereotype. Problem was, parents could overhear the conversation (or accidentally pick up the phone). High phone bills also caused parents to "police" phone usage. That left socializing in person. That's fine for young people in dense cities, but for everyone else, it meant driving. Driving was freedom from parents.

These days, you can get all sorts of social interaction with all sorts of secrets still being kept from parents via the internet, smart phones, etc.

You don't need to actually meet up in person for social interaction.

In fact, I'd argue that sex is actually one of the few forms of social interaction that actually does require being in the same physical location. (AKA, sex makes car ownership more likely). But if you can get by with sexting, and sending dirty pics to each other, then you can do it all from your house without ever having to meet up with the other person.

In some sense, it's related to why kids don't play outside as much anymore: because inside isn't as boring as it used to be.

*Social interaction is just one form of the larger category known as "sex".

Sex in teens actually seems to have declined from its peak. Wonder if there's a relation.

Your hypothesis is unclear as written. It has two interpretations:

1) It is easier than it was in the past to have sex without driving to get sex.

2) It is easier to get sex without driving than it is to get sex by driving.

I think you mean the first, right?

It's too bad that we've arranged our economy to be based on the price of suburban homes...

The relationship between driving and sex isn't as direct as simply driving to meet your partner. A lot of driving used to be required simply to find a date. Long gone are the days of cruising. Driving from party to party or bar to bar is no longer necessary. (Tougher DWI laws also discourage it more than in the past.) Moreover, when a large part of hooking up was say, meeting at a party, walking outside and then making out in the car, the car itself was a large part of your *profile*. Cars used to be sexy. That not many cars look sexy anymore is indirect evidence they aren't part of the mating ritual anymore.

Er, and owning a car is a status signaller that you (a) have money and (b) can take your date interesting places.
Who would you rather date? The guy who can drive you out to the beach or the guy who can only afford to walk you down to the take-out chinese place?

Getting a license is harder than it was thirty years ago. In Maryland, a teen can't drive himself until 16 yr 6 mo, and he can't drive with a friend in the car until 17 yr 2 mo. Before being licensed, 60 hours at the wheel with an adult passenger are required. As a parent of a 16-year-old and a 15-year-old, I can tell you that's a lot of boring hours; I probably drove fewer than a dozen hours with my dad before getting my license.

Many states have trended that way. Every now and then some youth is killed in a spectacular crash, and then the legislators have to pile another law on because there should be always be new laws when something bad happens.

What about Amazon and other online retailers? A decade or more ago buying some special piece of equipment, whether for work or play, might require a long drive. Now it's easy to order stuff online.

That includes banal items as well. There's no reason to drive to Borders to buy a book, movie or video game.

I would think younger people, with fewer lifelong habits, would be more influenced by this.

As a real capitalist, not the so called free market capitalist who thinks the price of phantoms called securities are capital, a car is a capital asset prereq for driving.

What amount of labor is required to acquire the capital to drive?

When I was a kid, I bought a used almost new Honda 50 for $175 which represented about 250 hours of labor over the span of a year of after school work ($0.75-0.85/hr). My peers were buying used cars for about the same, but many of them were in the dummy track taking auto shop, or they grew up on farms or among autoworkers (the big industry were auto related) and tinkering with the cars involved a few hours for parts.

Today, used cars are much more expensive in terms of labor, and the parts are far more expensive in labor due to the "high tech" nature of many components. In the 60s, the ignition was simple electric driven mechanically, and the fuel system was simple mechanical. Today, unlike with PCs, the components are all potted custom black boxes sold for very high markups over cost on terms that are unfavorable to the home mechanic, so for many people, the shop that charges easily a week of labor to a month of labor to get the car running again.

In the 60s, most kids worked to be the capitalist who owned the capital asset, the car that provided the freedom of travel. They could get a job within their neighborhood or with a few months of bus riding or ride sharing or going work with dad and working in the same factory.

Today, the capitalists are the parents who must provide the capital asset for their kids just so they can get to a job, that barely covers the operating costs of the capital required to labor.

And I find the response from economists to the problems the young have getting jobs is to reduce the wages for their labor and expect them to travel further and more often in part-time jobs at all hours of the day, as if cars grow on trees or roam the range and the rugged individualist just needs to take the initiative and chop down a car, or lasso a horse, to get to work.

And in the 60s, buses, sidewalks, bikes were supported by the community as transportation for the common man - today, buses, sidewalks, and bikes are the transportation (in the US) of the elites - the buses must have wifi, the sidewalks aren't by the road but scenic pleasures, and bikes are ridden by the elites. (Requiring a homeowner or business to build a sidewalk is government oppression, as is allowing bikers on the highways one must travel to work these days.)

i'm guessing gas prices are the big factor.

Sex in a car isn't that comortable anyway. Especially the kind of car you can afford as a kid.

Sex in a car might not be comfortable, but it's better than sex on the bus.

I like most of the explanations offered. Let me offer two more:

- On the topic of signaling: cars aren't the clear-cut status symbol among teens anymore. Owning a car still makes you cooler as a teenager these days, certainly useful in a suburban social environment, but I think this generation would rather have smartphones and Macbooks instead of a set of wheels, if they had to choose.

- Cross-generational differences in cost elasticity. Acts as a reaction against their parents' excessive consumption and debt accumulation. I know that's been a conscious influence on my own life choices. I had been a vocal critic of my own parents' massive indebtedness as far back as the 9th grade. And owning and using cars is expensive, not only in fixed costs but marginal costs (both implicit and explicit).

Sorry, err, I meant to say cross generational differences in income elasticity.

I overheard one teen telling another that a DUI would cost him $10,000 all told.

Yes. That's an accurate figure for a first DUI. Increased enforcement of drunk-driving laws and higher penalties are a contributor to the decline in driving and car ownership among the young.

It's become more difficult for young people to go out and drink at all in America without risking a DUI. This is a contributing factor behind young folks to move to cities.

This is a good observation. I read somewhere that young adults want to replicate the environment they experienced on college campuses; walking to bars and apartments to drink and then walking home. Hence Brooklyn.

That's the uncharitable view of my generation. The more charitable view (and uncharitable toward yours, assuming you're a Boomer) is that we're less hypocritical about drinking and driving.

The amount of drinking and driving I see all the time in suburbs is pretty disturbing. It's just accepted as part of life.

This one I agree with. It's much more likely that young people want to live in urban walkable neighbors so they can go out and drink, than that they don't think it's cool to own a car anymore.

Once you're living in an urban walkable neighbourhood, though, why own a car? That's what Zipcar or Hertz are for.

Loser males now simple except loser status and wank off to internet porn.
In the past loser males would drive around trying to meet girls and get rejected, then drive home. Or they at least had to drive to buy a porn magazine.

Acceptance of internet porn and lonely wanking means the loser males just play video games and wank when they get sad and lonely, then go back to video games.

Also, major increases in social anxiety and loserdom due to internet addictions. Loser males would rather wank than meet a real girl, too much anxiety with real girls.

Once the loser males give up hope of meeting a real girl, need for gas drops significantly.

Nice hypothesis. Maybe you should test it out.

I'm 21 and still only have my learners mainly for ID purposes. I havent gotten my license for 2 reasons. 1 when I was working in my past year of highschool I noted how much of my same-age coworker's paycheck was going to a car payment. In my mind it was drive a car or go to college; pick one or be in the red. Second it's just not my personality. I was late tying my shoes, late wearing jeans, late drinking or doing drugs, late doing a lot of normal things out of a resistance to socalization from being a precocious free thinker. People would ask why not drive, I'll reply because it's benefits don't justify it's cost. I still feel the same about the move away from velcrow...

This is interesting to me.

I am 31 years old. I have lived in a large, walkable city since I was 19. I have never owned a car, and I only got my licence 3 years ago, just to have it. I never had a problem getting lucky without having a car (thank you internet!).

I recently started doing consulting work, and a client was inconveniently based outside of the city. I considered either getting a car, or dropping the client. I dropped the client.

I also have clients all over the place and I don't have a car.
Most of the business is conducted via phone and e-mail, but even for meetings it's usually not a problem. The client will be in town sooner or later. For the rare cases of an immobile client living on a ranch, you can still rent a car for one day. Much cheaper than buying one, and then at least it's something special to go for a drive.

Perhaps driving has simply fallen out of fashion? The Brooklyn hypothesis would reflect only a part of this answer.

Wait, we've moralized driving, and then we rely on interviews to determine whether people are driving more or less?

Whose idea was that?

Ask them if they recycle too, while you're at it.

Gasoline consumption is down from its peak. We have restrictions on driving for those under 21 in my state, and we have an aging population, which means fewer drivers, and fewer miles per driver. We have fewer people working, and for those working, we have more telecommuting. We've invested in public transportation and in infrastructure improvement for non-car transport. Air travel is less expensive than it once was, and international air travel more common. We have a more urban, less rural population than ever. All of these things are sure to have an impact. But I would think we'd start with evidence on those points first before turning to survey data in this area.

We know that oil prices have been unsustainable for the US (although $100 Brent is pretty close to the carrying capacity of the US, ie, we should be able to maintain oil consumption around current oil prices).

Over the last two years, however, oil prices exceeded the US carrying capacity, and oil consumption was falling at a 2% pace. (It was up a tad in Q1 2013.) If we can't compensate out higher oil prices with greater oil efficiency in real time--and we haven't been able to--then someone has to lose mobility.

Now, who could that be? Well, it would be primarily those with jobs where the gasoline expenditure / hourly wage ratio is high. That's either someone who drives a lot or whose wage is low. The unemployed and those with minimum wage jobs fall into this category. Many of these would be young people.

If you want to help youth (and people in jobs paying $25-65k in general), then you need a junk fuel that costs half as much as gasoline. In other words, natural gas.

I think it's more due to the fact that young people like myself don't see a car as a status symbol. We see it as a costly form of transportation and would prefer a cheaper alternative. Besides the obvious marginal cost of gasoline, there are the costs of storage, parking, maintenance, taxes/registration, etc. Once you add up the costs plus the possibility of a DUI MC>MB for a good portion. Clearly in areas that do not have an effective mass transit system, the percentage of young drivers is higher because of no alternative.

What about the facts that many teenagers are much busier with school and other activities than they were in the past (less time for other many other activities that need driving like jobs, and less time for jobs that are needed to pay for driving)? College admissions is becoming much more competitive so many parents would rather have their kids study and try to get into a better college than spend time having a job and learning how to drive. (We can debate if that really helps the kids or not.) And then there are the overprotective parents who want to make sure nothing bad ever happens to their kid, so they're never going to let them get behind the wheel.

Also, what about that fact that more kids are going to college at 18? So any delay in getting a license after 16 means much less time driving before going to college, where you often don't need a car for several years, which would make it even less beneficial to learn how to drive while in high school.

I'd second online retailing as a need for everyone to drive less (except the UPS truck driver). I think online retailing is also killing a lot of malls. Does anyone hang out at the mall anymore?

$4 gas isn't helping either. At $10 an hour you'd have to work 4 or 5 hours (before taxes) to fill up the tank of a small car. 15 years ago you could fill up the tank after working for little more than an hour. You may as well not bother with even owning a car if you can't afford to put gas in it. And I think jobs for teens are getting harder to come by anyway.

I think like most big trends this one is driven by multiple factors with some overlap.

1. Young people can hardly get jobs, so they feel less pressure to get cars, and have less money to pay for them. It's pretty circular-- in the old days one would get a car to more easily get a job, and the job would pay for the car with leisure driving as a spin-off. Now it's too hard to get a job to make the speculative investment in the car viable and the shortage of mobile young people prevents employers from relying on them. Although to a large extent the unemployability of young people is regulatory-- in WA state it's effectively illegal for anyone under 18 to work except in a business owned by their parents and the minimum wage is prohibitively high. The Federal Labor Department also keeps trying to outlaw any work by under-18's.

2. For all that jobs are harder to get, they also pay less in proportion to the costs of driving-- insurance is now very costly, cars themselves are costly, and fuel is costly.

3. Parents used to subsidize young drivers, but the parents are often too poor now to do so, thanks to Obamanomics.

4. Baptist-and-bootlegger coalitions of rent-seekers drive regulatory measures which discourage young drivers. The weepy types and the petty tyrants of MADD lobby to prevent younger people from getting drivers licenses to "protect" them from the dangers of free movement, then the Teamsters, school bus-drivers' unions, and public-transit schnorrers lobby to prevent younger people from getting drivers licenses (and for higher minimum wages) to protect older workers from competition.

(The weepy types are partly driven by demographic change. Modern middle-class couples have one or two children instead of three or four, so on average they are more concerned about the welfare of each child and more susceptible to rent-seekers who lobby for restrictions on young people driving by using "safety" claims in their propaganda.)

5. Young people have fewer places to go in cars and fewer reasons to go to them. Instead of "heading to the mall" or "going to a teen dance club" to meet people and consume entertainment, young people now stay home and post snarky messages on the Internet. This is also a circular problem. Most of the old venues for young people have closed partly due to regulatory pressure (lawsuits and hostile municipal license actions directed against businesses which attract under 21's, commonly on the claim that vice occurs in their parking lots or neighborhoods) and partly due to declining patronage. The fewer venues there are, the more the remaining ones cater to the "wildest" young people (those who aren't satisfied with Tumbler), which makes those venues even bigger targets for official harassment-- round and round.

6. For various reasons, "nice" young people are all cowards and wimps nowadays.

what is the difference between recession and working less?

With teenagers driving less, I wish hitch-hiking would become normal again.
I live in Eastern Europe where it's a normal and well-accepted alternative form of transportation, and it's a great way to get to know people and enjoy their hospitality and friendliness.

I think Tyler was right the first time. Younger Americans are driving less because they can't afford it.
The benefits of having a car aren't any less because of the internet or changes in culture. Some urban hipsters might bike to work or live in walkable areas, but they still own cars so they can go camping and backpacking, get to outdoor out of town events and go on road trips.
There isn't a huge movement to lose the car and just travel by air to foreign countries. A few uber-hipsters, not enough to explain the numbers. People like living in a walkable city with lots of stuff to do, but being stuck in the city all the time is no more desirable than it was 20 years ago.

Why would I buy a car if I need it once in three months or so? Renting a car or using taxi when necessary is both cheaper and easier.

I agree with Tyler's point in comments above,

::With social media hook up locally rather than drive to next town to meet your “girlfriend,” etc.

except minus the sex part---online MMRPGs fill the urge to "hang out..." and "...with the guys" (or gals) is even less stratified.

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