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4 Ways Young Americans Are Saying No to Car Ownership

America's love affair with cars is ending as a new generation turns to more attractive options.

Photo Credit: Connell/Shutterstock


The headlines have been optimistic: Car sales are back and the Big Three are in the black while going green. But a lingering recession and shifting priorities among younger adults reveal that the shine is fading on America's car culture.

New car sales to those under 35 years of age have dropped by 30% between 2007 and 2012 according to the automotive consumer guide Edmunds.com. This trend may be about more than just economics: many in this demographic group are in no hurry to get drivers licenses, according to University of Michigan researchers.

Thirty years ago, 87% of 19-year-olds were licensed to drive; today it's under 70%. The number-one reason non-drivers are giving for not getting licenses isn't the ownership costs—it's because they're too busy (37%). Obviously, there is a major shift in priorities going on here. The same survey also indicated that 22% of those without licenses would rather bike or walk than own a car; 17% said they preferred public transportation; and 9% said they were concerned about how cars impact the environment. Of unlicensed young adults, 22% said they plan on never getting a driver's license. Meanwhile, the number of miles driven by Americans continues to drop. This trend is led by drivers 16 to 34, who drove 23% fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001, according to the US PIRG Education Fund.

Overall, it's safe to conclude that car ownership is much less of a priority than in years past, soft economy or not. And while the automotive industry is banking that millennials will resume the love affair with cars once the economy starts hitting on all cylinders, America's transportation landscape has changed dramatically since the recession began in 2008. Car ownership no longer the most convenient or attractive transportation option for these young adults.

Here's four ways young adults in America are getting around without owning a car.

1. Bikes. The bicycle is the millennials' equivalent of the hippies' Volkswagen Beetle. They've become part of the lifestyle, and a symbol of independence and counter-culture.

Over the past decade, a bicycling boom has taken hold, and many roads in major urban centers have dedicated bicycling lanes. Dozens of U.S. cities and colleges have implemented bike-sharing systems, allowing riders to quickly get from Point A to Point B without the hassles of bike ownership.

Not only are young adults bicycling for recreation, they're leading a dramatic increase in bicycle commuting. The U.S. Census reports that commuting by bike grew by 9% last year, bringing it to a historic high. Nearly 900,000 people, or about 0.6% of the commuting public rides a bike as the primary method of getting to work. Since 2000, bike commuting has grown 61%.

2. Public transportation. Every mode of public transportation is booming in the U.S. Last year, ridership hit its highest level since 1956 — the year President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law that created the Interstate Highway System.

Americans took 10.6 billion trips by public transportation in 2013, a 1 percent increase over 2012 (also a year marked by significant ridership growth). Subways and heavy rail systems saw a 2.8 percent increase in ridership, while light and commuter rail both saw increases near 1 percent.

American Public Transportation Association CEO Michael Melaniphy says this is not a statistical blip, attitudes regarding travel are changing. “There is a sea change going on in the way that people look at transportation,” Melaniphy says. “Americans want travel choices; they want to be able to choose the best travel option for their lives.”

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