Why don't millennials like cars? 5 theories

Carmel Lobello
The Week
To drive or not to drive...

Years ago — long before iPhones, listicles, and inflammatory TIME covers about millennials — learning to drive was considered a rite of passage. You got your learners' permit, nodded off through hours of drivers' ed safety videos, passed a test, waited in line at the dreary DMV, and finally walked away with a laminated license: Your first tangible ticket to freedom from your parents.

But at some point, that started to change. Last year, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute reported that Americans are getting fewer licenses than ever before. And though the change was reflected in every age group, the sharpest drop-off was in teens and twenty-somethings, otherwise known as "millennials."

In 1983, 87 percent of 19-year-olds had licenses; in 2010, that number was 69.5 percent. And a recent survey by AAA found that in 2013, only 44 percent of teens got a license within a year of reaching driving age.

Confused? Appalled? Well, there's good news: Everyone loves to theorize about why millennials act so millennial-y. And their driving preferences are no exception. Here, five theories for why these young whippersnappers don't like to drive.

iPhones and internets
While a driver's license used to symbolize independence from mom and dad and fun times with friends, another machine now makes those same promises: Smartphones. A recent Pew study about teens and technology found that 37 percent of U.S. teens now have smartphones, tools they use along with Facebook and Twitter to explore the world, socialize, and connect with peers. "[W]ho needs to drive over to a friend's house when you have GChat?" says Jordan Weissman at The Atlantic.

Thanks to the financial crisis of 2008, and the excruciatingly slow recovery, the U.S. is still facing elevated unemployment levels that are disproportionately hurting young people. That makes paying for a car — the lease, the insurance, the gas — a lot trickier. New research by the Highway Loss Data Institute suggests that may be the key reason fewer young people are driving. Auto industry writer Dale Buss says at Forbes:

Deep problems including disproportionate generational joblessness and underemployment, the growing burden of college loans, greater financial dependence on their parents, and general economic stagnation in the United States have been affecting millennials profoundly in many other ways. Why wouldn’t these challenges be causing some fundamental dislocations as well when it comes to the biggest purchase that most young adults make? [Forbes]

Compounding the trend is the fact that driving is simply more expensive than it used to be. A gallon of gas cost an average of $1.16 in 1984 when adjusted for inflation, versus about $4 today. The cars themselves and auto insurance have grown pricier as well.

Packed schedules
This year, the University of Michigan scholars who crunched those drivers' license stats surveyed 619 young people about why they haven't taken the leap to driving.

The number one reason, straight from the horses' mouths: They were either too busy or didn't have the time to get a license.

Mass transit
In the 1970s — when millennials were but a twinkle in their parents' eyes — an oil shock led to fuel shortages and high gas prices that lasted the better part of a decade. This drove many U.S. cities to update their public transit systems, changes that started in the early 80s — right when the number of licenses started trending downward.

That trend has just continued. Millennials are "multimodal," says USA TODAY, meaning they drive, bus, bike, or walk, depending on where they're going.

"They consider public transportation the best option for digital socializing and one of the most likely ways to connect with the communities they live in. They also say that transit allows them to work while they travel," says the paper.

Uncle Sam
Meanwhile, lawmakers are turning up the pressure on teen drivers, setting up more hoops to jump through to get licenses, and more restrictions once they're on the road. The New York Times:

[I]ncreasingly, states are legislating away that carefree cruise, passing laws that restrict when, how and with whom teenagers can get behind the wheel.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia now prohibit teenagers from driving with another teenager, and all but seven states forbid them from driving with more than one. In South Carolina, teenagers cannot drive after 6 p.m. in winter (8 p.m. in summer), and in Idaho, they are banned from sundown to sunup. [The New York Times]

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