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New Report: Americans Driving Less, Especially Youth

For many of us who travel by bike, our daily commutes have happily become more crowded. When I leave the office in the evening, the cycletrack up 15th Street is full of fellow downtown employees, many of them young professionals. Just last week, a new report from the U.S. PIRG put solid numbers behind what many of us are seeing on the streets: Americans are driving less — especially young adults.

According to Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People Are Driving Less and What It Means for Transportation Policy, the long-standing rise in the number of vehicle miles traveled is starting to move steadily in the opposite direction. In 2011, the average American drove 6 percent fewer miles than 2004, an historic shift in the nation’s travel patterns since World War II.

Even better news: The decline isn’t just a temporary means to escape high gas prices or save on transportation costs while times are tough. The trend is being driven by the next generation, which is choosing alternatives for a variety of reasons.

From 2001 and 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting – even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons – higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences – all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.

And many members of Gen Y are choosing bicycles over automobiles. The report highlights that, in 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.

With such a widespread — and lasting — shift in transportation preferences, the PIRG report urges policymakers to pay attention to what American really want as they craft the next federal transportation bill.

America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw that assumption into doubt. Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy – dominated by road building – is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans. It is time for policy-makers to consider the implication of changes in driving habits for the nation’s transportation infrastructure decisions and funding practices, and consider a new vision for transportation policy that reflects the needs of 21st century America.

We couldn’t agree more. Download the full report.