By Kim Wolske, A. Wren Montgomery, Thomas Lyon
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed transportation behavior. Compared to 2019, roughly half as many people globally are traveling by plane; road congestion is down by at least 50% in much of the U.S, Europe, and Asia; and telecommuting remains the norm for many. What do these trends mean for the future of the automobile, arguably the most important consumer product in history?
Our recent study (conducted pre-pandemic) suggests that preferences for automobile travel were already shifting among Millennials. Born between 1981 and 1998, Millennials are, compared to prior generations, more highly educated, more likely to delay starting families, and, having come of age during the Great Recession, more in debt and fiscally conservative. They are also described as “digital natives,” having grown up in media-saturated and technology-rich environments. Using the U.S. auto industry as our empirical context, our research asks whether the shared characteristics and experiences of a demographic group, such as a generation cohort, can create industry and field change, and how these changes come about.
Millennials drive for 8% fewer trips than older generations
To answer these questions, we first interviewed a national sample of 40 Millennials to explore their attitudes around automobiles. We found broad ambivalence to the entire automotive field. As one respondent said: “I’ve considered getting a car, especially when I was in college. But now it’s like, meh… I mean, like, it doesn’t sound appealing whatsoever.” Others expressed similar sentiments, noting that driving was stressful, that the economic and environmental costs of owning a car were unattractive, and that many activities that once required a car could now be substituted with more appealing technologies or transportation options, such as streaming movies at home instead of driving to the theatre, or using car sharing services such as Zipcar.
To determine if these attitudes were truly representative of this generation, we conducted a national survey of 2,225 U.S. adults, ages 18 – 65. Comparing three generations of adults—and controlling for socio-economic factors such as income, education, and household structure—we found that Millennials report driving for a significantly smaller proportion of their weekly trips (~8%) than either Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers, and that many of their attitudes and preferences related to car use were, indeed, unique. Importantly, these generational differences in car use persist even after controlling for socio-economic factors, suggesting that it is their different attitudes that account for differences in driving behavior.