So Much for Millennials Saving the Planet

Are Millennials really different from older generations when it comes to transportation preferences? Is the younger generation, supposedly enlightened about the need to combat global warming, truly embracing bicycles and buses and the sharing economy over owning and driving their own automobiles? Here in Virginia, billions of dollars of mass transit and other infrastructure spending hinge on the answer.

Christopher R. Knittel with the MIT Sloan School of Management and Elizabeth Murphy with Genser Energy — both of whom are concerned about global warming — tested Millennials’ vehicle-ownership preferences by comparing vehicle ownership and vehicle miles traveled (VMT). They published their findings in a new paper, “Generational Trends in Vehicle Ownership and Use: Are Millennials any Different?”

The disappointed verdict: “Results suggest that while Millennial vehicle ownership and use may be lower early on in life, these differences are only temporary and, in fact, lifetime vehicle use is likely to be greater.”

Taking into account numerous demographic variables, including income, household size, urban vs. rural, education, sex, race, marital status, number of children, and family life cycle, the authors write:

Many Millennials report they prioritize environmentally friendly products, but the so-called “Green Generation” … does not exhibit significantly different preferences when it comes to transport. … The US can not rely on Millennials’ preferences alone to reduce carbon emissions. They operate under many of the same constraints as prior generations, and they still have strong preferences for personal vehicles.

The net effect of Millennials’ collective efforts to reduce their environmental footprint is to reduce vehicle ownership by less than one percent.

Bacon’s bottom line: It looks like U.S. Millennials are like human beings across the globe: Putting a premium on their own time and convenience, they like to travel by car, preferably solo. We see the same thing in country after country, regardless of culture: As soon as people can afford to, they buy cell phones and they buy cars. They buy cars even when driving conditions are insanely congested and dangerous. Apparently, here in America the ability to tune into your favorite radio station (NPR versus conservative talk radio), listen to your personal play list, and stash your junk in the back seat outweighs the moral imperative of saving the planet.

That’s not to say Millennials (like everyone else) cannot be nudged into driving less. But that would require denser, walkable communities that allow people to access a wide range of destinations conveniently by foot. And accomplishing that goal on a large enough scale to be meaningful is the task of at least two generations.

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3 responses to “So Much for Millennials Saving the Planet”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Millennials are out for themselves – whatever “works” and there are two aspects to them:

    1. – they NEED to be mobile – especially for their employment


    2. they like doing “things” from outdoor things to “meet ups” and for that you need a personal vehicle.

    Most of them do not want nor need big SUVs – they’re fine with what used to be called in the vernacular – “rice burners”, even “beaters” but they’re not going to be “marooned”. No way!

    All the rest – transit, bikes, walkability – oh they want that too but they’re not going to give up their cars either!

  2. The Wellbeing Blogger Avatar
    The Wellbeing Blogger

    Poor millennials, always being judged for what they do and what they don’t, hehe. I agree with Larry here. I personally don’t own a car, because I don’t even have the money or the job to sustain it. Public transports around here are a nightmare – low availability, low quality, and expensive. To use a bike… well it’s hard to cycle 25Km plus all the ups and downs of the seven hills of Lisbon in my case. Not to talk about the crazy traffic… and the danger of riding a bike among it.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    My kids are millennials. Both of them drive a lot more than I do.

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