The American love affair with cars dates back to the day the first Model T rolled off the assembly line — and for a span of nearly 60 years (1946 to 2004), we drove more miles every year. But according to a new report by U.S. PIRG, that trend abruptly ended in the last decade, and Americans (especially teens and 20-somethings, a.k.a. “Millennials”) are now driving less. The number of young people getting drivers licenses has also declined from generations past.

Are cars really being jilted, or is this just a temporary dalliance with a new lifestyle? Will Americans return to their beloved automobiles? Here’s why Americans are driving less and what it means for the future of transportation.

The cost of cars (and car ownership) is a deterrent

Although the so-called “Driving Boom” ended in 2004 — before the recession hit — there’s no doubt the economy is one reason people are driving less. High unemployment means less income to spend on cars and no job to commute to. For those with cars, gas prices are a factor: the current average price of a gallon of gas in the U.S. is around $3.63.

Transportation options have improved

America has gotten much more bike friendly in the past decade. New bike lanes and greenways are in place or underway in major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, and Tucson. Bike-sharing programs have been very successful in Minneapolis, Denver, Boston, and Washington, DC — and NYC recently launched the largest program in the nation. Non-bikers have more options too: new or expanded light rail systems have opened in Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Salt Lake City (among others) within the past 6 years.

This leads to a “chicken-or-egg” type of question: Are people using their local transportation systems more because the systems have gotten better? Or are they choosing their cities, neighborhoods, and jobs because of their proximity to good transportation? Maybe it’s a bit of both. In any case, the availability of convenient, fast, green public transportation is luring an increasing number of people away from the stress and congestion of a highway commute.

Access to the web makes taking public transportation easier

Today’s transit riders have a number of convenient ways to determine the best and fastest way to get around. Bus and train schedules are available in real time online, and smartphone apps can keep you updated on ETAs and delays. How unfondly I remember the old days of standing at the bus stop, shivering in the summer cold (this being San Francisco), wondering when (or if) my Muni ride would ever come. Today, the bus still might be late or AWOL (this being the San Francisco transit system), but thanks to my apps, I know whether to leave the house later, take a different line, or just forget it and hail a cab. The new technology makes taking mass transit far less frustrating and more appealing.

The internet has made face-to-face contact less important

It seems people (especially young people) don’t feel the need to see their friends as often when they are in constant touch through texts, Facebook, instant messaging, and other virtual ways to connect. More people hanging out online means fewer drivers on the road.

Boomers are leaving the workforce

Millennials aren’t the only generation that’s driving less — many baby boomers are now retiring and no longer need to commute. Some older Americans have also stopped driving because of health or mobility issues (though this may change once self-driving cars become a viable option for consumers).

We’re driving less now … but will the trend continue?

Not all experts think so. Some feel the decline is mostly due to high unemployment among Millennials and will reverse when the economy improves. Others think that once Millennials get married and have kids, they’ll move to the suburbs and start driving more, just as their parents did. But it seems to me that the sustained reversal of this 60-year trend can’t be a fluke. Though many 30- and 40-somethings couldn’t imagine giving up the freedom of a car, today’s teens and 20-somethings don’t seem to have the same dependence on or relationship to their vehicles. A generation that bikes, walks, and takes public transit everywhere will be reluctant to embrace long commutes by car or live in places where driving is the only option.

If this decline does continue, it will have far-reaching effects for car manufacturers, energy companies, city planners, and, yes, car insurance companies. According to the study, U.S. transportation policy still assumes that the number of drivers will increase and is counting on gas-tax revenues to fund highway improvements when they should be shifting their focus to mass transit and bike infrastructure.

What’s your opinion? Is this trend a major turning point or just a minor detour? Do you find yourself driving less often than you used to? Let us know.

Related links

Closing the Gender Gap: Women Drivers Now Outnumber Men

The Latest Trends in Teen Driving

Around the nation | Getting there


about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.