Young adults leaving cars behind?

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

New studies show that in recent years, the number of miles driven by Americans has begun to drop for the first time in more than a half-century. Some say the trend is due to the recession, which has put people out of work and taken commuters off the road. Others say a larger demographic shift is in play: Young people today are not as interested in the car culture of older generations. Both sides are represented in today’s columns.

Commenting is open.

Plotting a car-free existence

By Jessica Estep

As a child, I was forced to leave every Braves game in the seventh inning and listen to Chipper Jones’ game-winning heroics on the radio in the car. “We just can’t get stuck in Atlanta traffic,” my mom would explain. No matter if we were playing the Mets and the score was tied. No matter if David Justice was next at bat. We had to go.

These days when I’m at Turner Field, I wouldn’t dream of leaving early, because I wouldn’t dream of driving to see the Braves. I hop on MARTA and take the free shuttle to and from the game. I stay into extra innings.

My suburban-raised generation grew up with the shared vision of cars as the Ultimate Freedom Machines. But it turns out (surprise!) that driving isn’t freeing; it’s expensive, dangerous, stressful and terrible for the environment.

Last month alone, I spent $891.57 on my sedan: an engine leak, a cracked windshield, a screw in my tire, a broken headlight, gas and insurance. This doesn’t include the dent a stranger put in my parked car.

And it doesn’t include the anxiety I feel every time I’m maneuvering a two-ton machine in one of the six lanes on I-85 and a summer storm crashes down so violently that none of us drivers can see the white lines on the highway, much less each other. My fingernails digging into the steering wheel, I wonder, Am I going to join the thousand or so people who die in motor vehicle accidents in Georgia each year? We’ve all seen the flashing traffic-fatality counter on I-85, a sign that ominously reminds us to “Drive Safely.”

But I’d rather not drive at all.

In fact, I’ve delicately formulated a balance of biking, taking MARTA, carpooling and walking to whittle my total drive time down to about 50 miles per week. (Not impressed? My commute to Lawrenceville is 25 miles each way.) I spend any moment I am behind the wheel plotting how to further decrease my driving time. My ultimate fantasy is to get rid of my car altogether, pending increased public transit services in Atlanta. (A pipedream? I hope not.)

Older people and suburbanites look at me funny when I profess my deep love for MARTA — and particularly for my bicycle. They tell me biking is dangerous and inconvenient. But cruising my bike through Piedmont Park to the Beltline is a heck of a lot safer way to get to the Grant Park Farmers Market than merging my car onto two separate 12-lane highways. And I would hardly call my bike’s free, market-front parking spot inconvenient.

Driving is what’s inconvenient. And I’ve purposely reoriented my life to be car-light. I choose to live in Midtown, where my fiancé and I happily split a 700 -square-foot apartment so that we can walk to the grocery store, the bank, a movie theater, a library, two museums and a plethora of restaurants and bars. “And the best part is that we live right across from MARTA!” we tell people excitedly. (He can also walk to work, lucky guy.)

And we’re not anomalous. Plenty of my friends have already trashed their cars or live similarly car-light lifestyles — relying on MARTA, their feet, their bikes and the occasional ZipCar to get around. Mallory takes the Atlantic Station shuttle to Midtown for her job. Jonathan takes MARTA to Lindbergh. Leslie walks. Chris rides his bike to Emory’s campus. Another Chris rides his bike five miles from Kirkwood to Midtown: “It’s such an easy ride down the BeltLine and then through Piedmont Park to 14th (Street).” Ah, yes, I know!

Sure, some drive. Many do, in fact. But for the most part, our generation doesn’t want to join in Atlanta’s congestion hell. We’d rather plan our escape.

And you’d better believe I’ll be jumping on my bicycle when the zombie apocalypse comes. I mean, can you imagine the traffic jam on 400?

Jessica Estep, 26, teaches English as a local college.

It’s the economy, not a lifestyle trend

By Robert W. Poole Jr.

For the last several years, popular media have featured articles about “peak car”(usage) and the recent decline of vehicle miles of travel (VMT) in developed countries. The anti-auto PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) made a big splash in May with its report, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future.”.

PIRG’s thesis is that the key to recent U.S. decreases in VMT and VMT per capita is changes in preferences and behavior among young people ages 16 to 24 — the so-called millennial generation. The story line is that millennials are not very interested in getting a driver’s license or living in the suburbs; they want to live downtown and walk, bike or use transit. PIRG then does a lot of number crunching to produce VMT projections through 2040 that are drastically lower than anyone else’s, and uses those results to argue for shifting a lot more transportation dollars from highways to transit, bikeways, etc.

In my column in the May issue of Public Works Financing, I questioned this thesis, drawing in part on analysis by commuting expert Alan Pisarski. He points out that the recession has hit young people the hardest, citing a Pew Center study in 2010 that found 37 percent of young respondents either out of work or underemployed. Healso cited figures from the National Highway Transportation Survey that annual miles driven per person differ dramatically by employment status. For those 16 to 24, employed males averaged 12,000 miles in 2009, compared with about 6,000 miles for unemployed males.

Pisarski also noted that in the last two decades, nearly all states have enacted “graduated licensing” schemes that restrict driving by those 16 to 18. Nevertheless, from 2001 to 2009, the fraction of those under 19 with drivers licenses was essentially flat.

In the May issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson assembled an array of data on millennials, showing that the number of people ages 15 to 34 living with their parents soared from 500,000 in 2008 to nearly 2 million in 2011. Fewer young people are getting married, having children and buying homes — which has led to what Thompson describes as “stagnation” in household formation since 2007. As the economy recovers, all those trends are likely to reverse.

As for the alleged shift of millennials and others from driving to transit, biking and walking, that’s hard to find in the data. In a recent presentation at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, researchers compare the reductions in driving to increases in use of alternative modes. They find that increased transit use account for only about 1 percent of the decrease in auto travel, with bicycle and walk trips appearing to account for only a few percent more. Other possible factors besides the recession include the growth of online shopping and a nearly 1 percentage point increase in the mode share of telecommuting.

As for the much-touted preference of millennials to live in the city center, the statistical evidence says otherwise. Demographer Wendell Cox reviewed the data in May in a piece for Comparing Census data for 2010 and 2000, Cox finds that people between 20 and 29 “were less inclined to live in more urban and walkable neighborhoods than their predecessors.” In 2000, 19 percent of those in this age group lived in the core municipalities of major metro areas, compared with 13 percent in 2010.

So what can we make of all this? Clearly, VMT per capita cannot go on rising indefinitely. But the just-so story about millennials losing interest in driving appears to be mostly an artifact of the recession’s severe impact on younger people, not a fundamental change in their choices of where to live or how to travel.

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation.

33 comments Add your comment


July 8th, 2013
4:37 pm

Yes, there has obviously been an increase in the number of young people moving back into the City or ITP in general. However, another element of this is the fact that the Atlanta Metro is now made up of lots of communities that rely little on the actual City of Atlanta for employment, entertainment or education. Many people now grow up in suburban communities and simply have no reason to travel great distances.


July 8th, 2013
4:56 pm

According to Jessica cars are going away, now that is great news! If she’s right there’ll be no need for more transportation related taxes so those of us who voted against TSPLAT are vindicated.

Jack ®

July 8th, 2013
6:26 pm

There’s not a job in Atlanta that’d pay me enough to drive downtown. It’s no wonder to me that so many are on tranquilizers and pain pills.


July 8th, 2013
7:33 pm

I live intown because I can walk, take transit and ride my bicycle. At the office, when I carry my bicycle helmet on the elevator, the most common remark I hear is “I wish I could ride my bike to the office”. Besides reaffirming my belief that most people would like to give up their car commute, it gives me a chance to hear the various reasons people are not able to give up their cars.

I think both reasons discussed in this article are part of the reduction in car miles. There are many hurdles to riding a bike in our city and we need to provide more reasons to overcome these hurdles.

I just got back from a trip to our nation’s capital. In the few years since my last trip, the number of bike lanes, multi-use trails and their users has exploded, and not just downtown and around the Mall, but throughout the city and the suburbs. If Atlanta were to do one thing to increase the number of cyclists, it would be to build more cycling infrastructure.


July 8th, 2013
8:22 pm

I’ve been car-free in Atlanta for a full year now. Admittedly, my wife does have a car. We get by just fine! Atlanta has a spectacular climate for year round biking! My 12-14 mile daily commute burns 1,000 calories and no fossil fuels. It’s a wonderful way to get around. Not to mention the extra cash you save and then get to invest in new bikes! Atlanta is on the rise for all things cycling. Imagine Atlanta with another 500 cyclists and 500 fewer cars.


July 8th, 2013
9:13 pm

Even though I disagree with him ideologically and policy-wise, Robert W. Poole won this policy debate by a mile. First off, by discussing actual policy instead of opinion and anecdotes, but by using economic and demographic data to debunk the biased PIRG.

And incidentally, Jessica and her fiancee’ will find a car quite useful when they have children. Their fun-filled live/work/play secular lifestyle (don’t these hipsters go to church?!?!) will be replaced with trips to/from daycare, playgrounds and the pediatrician, and when they get older Chuck E. Cheese, museums, field trips, soccer games, ballet practice etc. For families, the carless existence only works if you are in the heavily urbanized northeast (Boston, New York, Philadelphia etc.) were well-developed transit systems mean a bus or train will be there to take you wherever you want to go every 15 minutes, and in most cases that “wherever” is going to be relatively close anyway because things are so much more dense. But elsewhere – including progressive west coast cities – that sort of public transportation efficiency is nonexistent and things are so spread out it precludes it, so most people have no choice but to drive. Even if you could bike to your commute and back, you still can’t pick the kids up from your local public (or private or religious) school on your bike. Drop the kids off and still bike to work? Sure, if your boss doesn’t mind you getting there at 10 and leaving at 2.

Do not get me wrong. I am pro-transit and find nearly all of the Reason Foundation and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (its local libertarian counterpart) to be the stuff of fantasy (to be kind) as if an uncoordinated patchwork of van pools, express buses and telecommuting is going to meet the needs of a metro area with 5.5 million people, many of whom work or attend school in different counties from which they reside. But in this debate, the Reason Foundation won and Jessica’s anecdotes (again check her out in 10 years when children will have totally changed her lifestyle and transportation needs) are found lacking.


July 8th, 2013
11:15 pm

Now if we could only get the Drunk, texting, phone chatting, speeding, Young Drivers off the road, we will ALL be safer too!


July 9th, 2013
5:25 am

Gerald, You are so right. I loved living in the city center in 700 sq ft or less, riding my bike everywhere, when I was in my 20s as well. Jessica says “older people and suburbanites look at her funny” when she says she loves MARTA…that’s because older people and suburbanites have children. It’s hard for them to remember what it was like to hop on a train unencumbered. I hope Jessica is saving her pennies so that she can afford a minivan. She will make a great mom, and when she is one, she may find it uncomfortable to carry groceries, a 3 year-old, a 1 year-old and an aging parent on the back of her bike.


July 9th, 2013
5:51 am


I forgot about the aging parent thing. That was an excellent point. Now there are some lower income families who can’t afford cars and they somehow make it work. I am 100% in their corner, congratulate and support them, and they are one of the main reasons why I gladly pay the MARTA tax. But I know that it is not in the interests of me and my family to emulate them. It is also not in the interests of society at large for that matter. I know that a lot of folks honestly believe that it would make things more equal, that it would increase equal opportunity and such, if we did, but that is not the case.


July 9th, 2013
6:06 am

All major cities are supporting the use of bikes for inner-city commuting with a major introduction in New York City. The old-timers, confronted with more bike lanes and decreased parking spaces, are whining in high pitched screeches. Atlanta is also behind in the development of its rail system but eventually this will be improved by necessity. Not only do bikes provide exercise and pollution free commuting, they increase freedom of movement and wealth – two motivators for the right wing. Automobile expenses have been defined as one important blockage to the accumulation of wealth by anyone (”The Millionaire Next Door”).


July 9th, 2013
6:43 am


“The old-timers, confronted with more bike lanes and decreased parking spaces, are whining in high pitched screeches. Automobile expenses have been defined as one important blockage to the accumulation of wealth by anyone (”The Millionaire Next Door”).”

What you are choosing to ignore is that commuting by bicycle does not fit everyone’s lifestyle circumstances or economic reality. Most people in the metro area cannot afford to live close enough to their jobs to ride bicycles. Others do not have the sort of casual work environments that allow you to commute by bicycle (if your workplace requires business attire, are you going to put your suit and tie, briefcase, laptop, etc. in your bike basket or something)? And others still have to meet the regular transportation needs of others – i.e. children and senior parents – instead of just themselves. It isn’t being an old-timer whining, but instead is called being an adult with responsibilities. For most people the hipster lifestyle where you are single or married without kids so you can have your loft or condo a few minutes away from your job and favorite nightspot and coffee lounge, or you have the freedom to choose your job based on its proximity to those things, comes to an end. You get married. You have kids. You need a larger, suitable living space for the kids, which requires more income. You get promoted to middle management. Your parents age and have health issues. And so on.

You forget: a lot of the people promoting the “sustainable living” ideology are also demanding that people alter and center their entire lifestyle around not owning a car and other things that are supposed to be good for the environment. And yes, very high on the agenda is choosing not to have kids or limiting yourself to at most 1 child. If that is the lifestyle that you choose for yourself, fine, but don’t dictate it to others. I thought personal lifestyle choice, personal freedom, was one of the motivators of the left wing.


July 9th, 2013
6:52 am

Telecommuting has decreased my need to be on the road, and it’s amazing how the savings add up, less gas, less car maintenance, and lower insurance costs. I became a young adult at a time when most people my age thought of buying a new car every 5 years. That’s just silly stupid, and a huge waist of money. It’s nice to see that people are turning to alternative means of transportation, as it will mean more money in their pockets, and less money in the hands of big oil.


July 9th, 2013
8:12 am

Sounds like driving in general makes Jessica uncomfortable, and for this we should all plan on reducing our driving. Personally, I love driving with the top/windows down and my music blaring.

Living in the city is awful… It’s hotter, more congested, and too many hipsters who think living in a 500sq ft studio apartment with noisy neighbors, thugs bumping their bass at 3 in the morning and a horrible cafe on the first floor of an overpriced condo is awesome. I’ll take my 30 minute air conditioned commute through beautiful Sandy Springs/Smyrna neighborhoods any day.

Want to know what I see from my office window? Trees and a lake. no parking lot, no cars. What do these urbanite-no-car-lovers get to see? Traffic, traffic, traffic. Enjoy huffing car exhaust while avoiding the panhandlers.

*disclaimer- I’m an avid cyclist. I just avoid rush hour and anything near the city/major road. You’re welcome, inattentive driver

ATL Born & Raised

July 9th, 2013
8:13 am

Plenty of families in big cities like NYC manage just fine with their kids and aging parents with no cars. The trick is cities like that are extremely walkable with phenomenal public transit. Because Atlanta suffered a great “white flight” over the past 20 years with everyone moving into the suburbs, the incentive to make our city walkable and improve our transit wasn’t there. Now that these young people are realizing a life in the burbs isn’t for them after spending their childhoods there, hopefully Atlanta can move in the direction of NYC, Boston, and Chicago. Let’s get some light rail down and continue the wonderful Beltline project. I would love to live in a neighborhood in ATL where I could walk everywhere and not have to worry about a car. I had this when I lived in New Orleans. We can make it happen here.

arch nemesis

July 9th, 2013
8:14 am

These hipster people live in areas not much larger than prison cells. They do not have any type of life outside the perimeter nor do they desire one. They cannot travel any considerable distance without it being a planned event. That sounds like lots of freedom to me. :)

Freedom is about self choice; whether it is choice of transportation, location to live, or just about anything else imaginable. The real stupidity shows its head when one person or group tries to claim superiority on an issue over another. You like the hipster lifestyle? Fine; that is your choice. But trying to justify why your choice is better than mine or anyone else is absurd. I think it demonstrates a lack of conviction on the chosen point of view. Why else would one feel the need to justify the superiority?

ATL Born & Raised

July 9th, 2013
8:24 am

Haha, so many people personally offended by this article. Relax, people. Jeez. Some people prefer living in a downsized environment because it’s cheaper and easier to maintain. My utility bills are a faction of my parents’ who live in a 3,000 sq foot home in the burbs. I don’t have 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms and a whole downstairs to keep clean. I don’t have a massive lawn to maintain. The complex does all the landscaping and maintains the pools and common areas.

But you all act like there’s only tiny apartments in the city. Have you driven through Atlanta? There are massive homes here, as well. Plenty of people have yards – heck, some people have lakes to look out over! I do. And I live right on the river, as well. No one is advocating one way of living is superior to another. But different strokes, people. I don’t know too many millennials who want to live out in the burbs in a massive McMansion and have to drive 15 min to get anywhere. That’s why there’s such a push to make ATL more pedestrian friendly all around.


July 9th, 2013
9:08 am

Clearly there are a lot of folks here making erroneous claims about city life. Lets face it folks, the five most affluent neighborhoods in Ga. are inside the city limits. Can you find a studio apt. in these communities ? Yes, and everybody living there is doing so because they want to. You also find massive homes with sprawling yards and beautiful gardens. Interesting how some post here want us to believe only tiny homes with bad neighbors exist in Atlanta. Then they tell us not to judge their choice’s . commoncents clearly knows nothing about Buckheads tree lined streets, or Midtowns historic neighborhoods. arch nemesis would have us believe that Ansley Park, the wealthiest neighborhood in the state, is nothing more than a bunch of “jail cells”. I love the city. I live here because I want to, and yes I walk to do my marketing, dining, movie going, night clubbing, visiting the High Museum, strolling the Botanical Garden and just about anything else I want to do. I too, look forward to the day when cars are even less relevant in our great city. Thank goodness the young are seeing alternatives to an outdated lifestyle.


July 9th, 2013
10:17 am

Hey, now, I live intown, actually took the 110 bus from Lenox w/ my six year old last week. Can walk to restaurants, farmers market etc. so I am not claiming the city is only tiny apartments, only that I would not enjoy giving up my car. I love the freedom it gives me (grab my kids, mom, husband, luggage and head to the mountains, run all my errands without waiting on the bus, etc) and happily accept the responsibility it entails. Different strokes.


July 9th, 2013
10:43 am

I drive a stick shift sports car and am passionate about driving. However, I think everyone should support more bike lanes/public transit where possible. It alleviates traffic and makes the city-core an inviting place to explore. The new beltline trail is amazing and always packed with people!

Oh and I can’t help but notice that there’s record high unemployment and all of a sudden young people are selfish for not driving a car and owning an McMansion at 27. Oh I forgot, thugs and hipsters don’t know how to work anyway.



July 9th, 2013
10:50 am

Flash- “commoncents clearly knows nothing about Buckheads tree lined streets, or Midtowns historic neighborhoods”

I lived and worked in Buckhead for 2 years. Most days I could have jogged to work faster than driving down the beautiful tree lined streets of West Paces Ferry. I lived walking distance to a few great restaurants and shops, but had no desire to walk back with an armful of groceries. Jogging around the neighborhood was great until I had to stop every .25 mile for a red light.

And yes, there are very large homes with beautiful lawns in the perimeter, but those are out of range to the average young person idealized in this article, as written by a 26 year old English teacher, which would put those people in the tiny apartments or questionable neighborhoods most would deplore.

But, as mentioned a few time already, different strokes for different folks.


July 9th, 2013
10:51 am

Is this article a joke?? Her generation shuns cars?? Should be retitled “Jessica Dreams of Utopia While Driving Her Car”.

Eric Chiarelli

July 9th, 2013
11:37 am

Words (and actions) well spoken Jessica and Robert. Having grown up in rural Ohio, and moved to Atlanta 14 years ago, travel by car was just “expected”. I was fortunate to have lived in Shanghai recently for about 18 months, where the mass transit is second to none. Between that and a bicycle, my stress levels dropped, my health improved, I lost weight, etc, etc, etc. I now take MARTA to work, but I still have to commute 2.5 miles each way to and from the train station. My “commutes” are now almost stress free, and I’m saving a ton of money. I get home at roughly the same time every day as if I were to drive, but don’t experience any of the headaches of dealing with traffic. I hope that the people of Atlanta will “see the light” as it were and support the expansion of MARTA to be on par with other world-class cities.


July 9th, 2013
11:40 am

Actually, Jessica is not saying that, Shamehia. She is commenting on her own personal situation. Some national studies indicate that total vehicle miles driven are falling and one theory is that younger people feel less attached to cars than older generations.


July 9th, 2013
2:07 pm

I applaud those that “loose” their cars,when I lived in D.C. I did the same..Unfortunately MARTA is awful compared to the Metro and having children changes the game. :700 feet for a family and midtown schools,–not on your life–but young and free, great!!


July 9th, 2013
2:26 pm

Ironically, both articles are probably right. In 2008, America became a 50/50 nation. Half of US were born before 1964. And half were born after, 1964. A cultural shift is taking place, with great economic consequences? Cars and Houses are going to be viewed differently,going forward. In an attempt to create greater “Wealth”. More young people will begin filtering out the past. As the attitudes about cars become more mundane? You will see the process become more budgetary. Do I need a car,? Is a very relevant question, in the “New Economy”!


July 9th, 2013
2:30 pm

The “new” economy is actually the “old ” economy in Europe. City living (sans cars) is de rigueur in Europe, ..what’s new is actually old……


July 9th, 2013
3:20 pm

I think an important part is being overlooked. With more and more people being laid off and unemployment holding steady around 7.5-8% (more like 15% if you count those not looking for work, on disability or only working part time), those 50%ers simply cannot afford cars, gas, upkeep, insurance, etc.

Next, throw in Obamacare, and more and more employers will be cutting employee hours down below the 30 per week benchmark to avoid paying healthcare benefits. Once this becomes the norm, more and more people will be forced from the workforce and/or forced from their cars.

When Obama got elected the first time, he said he would fundamentally change America. Well, we are getting that change, but I expect, this is not what most people had in mind…including me. God help us all.


July 9th, 2013
3:29 pm

Biking is fine for recreation or even running minor errands. However, in the humidity, heat, rain, and hills, biking as a work commute loses much of it’s appeal. Unless you have showers at work or change into work apparel once there. I know whenever I’m tooling around even at a casual pace on a bike I work up quite the sweat.
As far as all the chores of life … people who live urban lifestyles don’t typically go to Costco and load up on 2 years worth of pickle relish at a time. Bikes have baby seats as well as baskets that will hold the 2 bags of groceries you get when you shop a couple days at a time.


July 9th, 2013
3:31 pm

Joe, the companies fretting the loudest over projected health care costs don’t pay their employees much to start with. I’ve heard no professional firms balking. Just pizza parlors and wal mart.

Don't Tread

July 9th, 2013
8:26 pm

By all means, plan yourself a car-free existence. Please. The less traffic I have to fight (on those days I actually commute), the better.


July 9th, 2013
8:44 pm

Gerald- not everybody wants and will have kids. You speak of freedom, but seem to forget that having kids is a choice as well, so your absolutist stance doesn’t actually apply to everybody. I’m a 43 year old professional, a homeowner, and I bike everywhere. Yes, I do wear business attire- I keep shoes in my office and bring my clothes each day. In my basket, yes! I have a pleasant 20 minute commute (which takes longer to drive) and clean up when I arrive at work. It’s pretty easy, just different than what some are used to. I can’t imagine sitting in a car, traffic brings out the worst in people and I choose to avoid it. Biking is not just for hipsters, it’s just a smart alternative for lots of folks. I appreciate getting my exercise in a practical way and saving money. To each their own, but many of your assumptions are misguided.


July 10th, 2013
6:57 am

Joe, you are dead on. Cars equal freedom of movement. Obama and the statists would love to restrict our freedom of movement. They’d love to have us all dependent on bikes and public transportation. Flip a switch and we’d be stuck where we were–no way out. I think it’s interesting how well the Green Movement dovetails with state control. Environmentalists say cars pollute the environment, and try to convince us that we should drive less, make it more expensive and inconvenient to drive, etc. . . Statists would love to limit our freedom of movement. Drip, drip, drip…I hear the sound of personal responsibility and individual liberty going down the drain.


July 10th, 2013
8:14 am

atlmom, While I fully agree with you on the decline of personal responsibility (see Nial Ferguson:the great degeneration), I think your concern about loss of freedom,state control, and cars is a bit too imaginative..That being said,in Atlanta, they are necessary for most families with multiple children..