Millennials and car ownership


Traffic on Boston’s Tobin Bridge (from WBUR).

Millennials, those who were born in roughly 1980-2000, are increasingly forgoing buying cars. There are many potential reasons for this, but the jury’s out on what the true causes are.

In the above-linked article, the reasons are broken down into three different types: economic, technological, and cultural. I believe the last two reasons are more interesting, so I am going to delve into those more.

In the aftermath of the Recession and the current cost of higher education leaving many young college graduates in debt, many millennials simply can’t afford to own cars. More often than not, they live in places where they can rent a home, use public transit to get to work, and walk to other amenities, so that owning a car is unnecessary.

This line of thought uses the argument that millennials would like to own a car and live where it is conducive to it, but cannot at the present moment due to financial reasons. I don’t fully buy into that, which is where the other two arguments come into play.

Technology has had a huge impact on everyone’s life, and it also plays into this topic. Technology has made it easier to meet and communicate with friends and find places to visit, unlike previous generations, who often drove to their friends’ homes to spend time with each other. Technology has also made it easier to move around, especially by non-automotive or other cooperative means. Ridesharing (like Uber or Lyft), carsharing (like Zipcar), bike sharing (like Hubway in Boston or Citibike in New York), and transit apps that let you know when/where a bus/train is arriving, are influencing how millennials choose their mode of transportation, all through the smartphone.

The prevalence of smartphones (and our increasing dependence on them) also makes modes which allow us to use them while traveling all the more attractive. Being able to sit in a bus, train, or Uber car and read emails or browse Facebook is, for many people, a more desirable way to travel than by driving yourself, when you can’t do anything but drive.

Finally, there has been a cultural shift in our relationship with cars. In previous generations, a car was the ultimate symbol of status and wealth, and owning a car was just as much a fashion statement as it was a tool of mobility. Now, there is much more to choose from to show off wealth and status, and the shift is away from cars. Again, as technology increases in importance and desirability, it is chosen more often over a car. Millennials also choose to spend their money on more than just “things”, like streaming music or food and drinks at restaurants.

Walkability also plays into where millennials want to live. It seems that they want to live in more “walkable” places, i.e., places that are designed and suited for pedestrians; if they live in a place like this, then they won’t need a car. I’ll dive into the concept of walkability in a different post, but it is important to note here.

Urban places are more conducive to non-automotive travel, but cars still dominate the landscape. As much as many people (even myself) want to transition to a non-automotive-reliant society, cars are still cemented in American culture and economy. That being said, urban places are the easiest to live in without a car, and if people do not want to own cars, these kinds of places are the ones in which to live. So are people moving to the city because they can get rid of their cars, or are there more significant reasons to move, and shedding the car is an added benefit? We’ll have to wait and see.


One thought on “Millennials and car ownership

  1. There were many parts of this article that hit home for me, as this is an issue that’s been on my mind as I’m looking to move cities after graduation. The paragraph where you talk about how “being able to sit in a bus, train, or Uber car and read emails or browse Facebook is, for many people, a more desirable way to travel than by driving yourself, when you can’t do anything but drive” is so very accurate. Great read!


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