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The decline in driving among young American adults


When considering what to say to a law school applicant looking at various schools at various price points, I was surprised to learn that he has never learned to drive.  (This came up because he currently envisions himself working for a small firm in a rural part of an east coast state, which could be difficult even without having to rely on the basically non-existent mass transit options in such environs.)

He’s about to graduate from college, which led me to wonder how common it is for Americans at various ages to be non-drivers.  The best proxy for this — not a perfect one of course — is whether people have driver’s licenses.  If you had asked me to guess I would have said that something like 95% of people in their early 20s are licensed to drive. And in fact this would have been a tolerably close estimate when I was that age: in 1983, 91.8% of 20-24 year olds were licensed.

Yet it turns out that today, nearly one in every four 20-24 year olds (23.3%) doesn’t have a driver’s license. The decline since 1983 among 25-39 year olds is also striking, with the percentage declining from 95.6 to 85.1 in the 25-29 cohort, from 96.5 to 86.6 among 30 to 34 year olds, and 94.9 to 87.9 in the 35-39 age range.  (All latter figures are for 2014).

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s been a huge increase in geriatric drivers.  In 1983, only 55% of Americans 70 or older had a driver’s license (I find that number shockingly low. I would guess it reflects far lower percentages of car ownership per household in the mid-20th century, with one consequence being that many households never acquired more than one driver at most.  I also wonder what the gender breakdown looks like in this regard).  In 2014 that figure had risen to 79%.  When one considers that the number of old people in the US has nearly doubled over the past 35 years, we may soon be facing a crisis of perpetual left turn signaling.

As for why young people are so much less likely to be drivers than 30 years ago, is this a product of increasing urbanization?  The declining economic status of millennials relative to their boomer parents?  All that crazy “rap” music?

Relatedly, what do people who don’t have driver’s licenses do for identification purposes?  What card do they produce when they’re carded?  How do they vote?  If they look like they might be Mexican, how do they prove their legal residence for the purpose of being able to frequent fine dining establishments?

Anyway, there’s something happening here, though what it is ain’t exactly clear (that’s what the comments section is for naturally).

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  • Fortunado

    Hi Dr Camps,

    Early 30’s and car-less for 3+ years. Started out temporary and after putting it off several months, I realized I could save a ton of money not getting one.

    The decision was purely economical. I’m one of a large but unnoticed group of young people who had their lives destroyed straight out of the gate by the financial crisis. I try to stay as “lite” as possible.

    I basically live my life under the calculation that at any moment, my job could be gone and I would be out of work for a year, two years, or even longer, and that the future will probably not bring better income and promotions. Vacations, other than perhaps a weekend out with friends where we split a hotel room, and other luxuries are simply unthinkable for the foreseeable future. Maybe if I ever end up with a million in the bank, I can look into it.

    For ID, in the rare cases I need it, I use a passport. I either vote Democrat or sometimes don’t vote period. ETA, I’m white btw.

  • swaninabox

    Lets see, my ancedota:

    At 16, in the mid 90’s Florida, I had a car- went to a magnet school and my parents were tired of driving 30+ min each way to pick me up/afterschool etc.

    Move to DC, early 2000’s. Can’t afford to live anywhere walking distance to a train station, keep the car- sometimes you want to leave town.

    Move to Chicago, late 2000’s. Same situation. Can’t afford to be walking distance to the train, the car is paid for. Plus, how else do you explore the greater mid-west, get to a Dr’s appt in Des Plaines, or visit friends in Madison.

    My friends there, mainly upper middle class, mid 20’s -mid 30’s. What surprised me was not how few owned cars. This is the city, but how few, all from non-urban areas, got a damn license. Which meant that if I wanted to arrange an expedition to the Indiana Dunes, a party in the suburbs, whatever, I had to fucking drive. I was my own designated driver.

    It was frustrating, because at one point I had to purchase a new vehicle on short notice, and I had no one to take with me car shopping. None of them had a car, and none of them had the ability to drive a rental car back while I picked up my new car. And all the dealerships were in Naperville and car centric points.

    TLDR: Kids these days need to learn.

    TLDR: mid 90’s, I took optional drivers ed, a quick test, and I was in. Mid 2000’s, a friend over the age of 21 had to wait for a year with a learners, and when that expired, another year to test. Also was required to have like 80 hours of driving signed off on.

    How exactly do you get 80 hours of drive time if you don’t own a car or live with parents who own one and are willing to spend the time? It’s nuts.

    TLDR III: This is going to be a gigantic issue of economic mobility when all of these folks need to move out of the 10 cities with good transit, or are unable to afford apartments on the good schedules. Learning – for those who can- is an economic justice issue.

    • personwhoreads

      None of the public high schools in my school district offered Driver’s Ed. This was in Oregon in the mid-90s but to my knowledge it’s still true.

      Did you offer to help teach any of your friends to drive? I was able to get various friends of mine to teach me, and eventually my finished the job and I was able to get a license.

      My current partner learned to drive at about 28 by paying for private lessons and it was less than $500, so that is also an option.

  • personwhoreads

    I’m in my late 30s so a young gen-Xer. I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was 28, for economic reasons. In the states where I had lived, to get a driver’s license, you had to show proof of insurance. I couldn’t afford a car, and why would I want insurance for a car I couldn’t afford? In all states that I am aware of, you can get a State ID without getting a driver’s license. It looks very similar and requires the same documentation, but just no driver’s test.

    I have three friends about my age who have NEVER had a drivers license and are nearing 40. They are environmentalists who prefer biking and public transit. I also know others in their 20s who have never held one for economic reasons, or who had one in the past, but have not renewed it due to expenses involved, which vary by the person but including unpaid tickets, DUI penalties, expense of car insurance, not needing a car, etc.

    My experience in college was that people who hailed from upper-middle class suburbs often had drivers licenses and their own cars. People from urban or rural backgrounds had no car and were less likely to have a driver’s license.

  • Zelda

    As a mom of millenials, I offer this perspective. “Insurance regulations” require that once your teen driver has a driver’s license, he or she has to be on your policy. Teen driver rates are exorbitant. Even if they are at college and not driving, you will still pay. One company offered a “discount” since the kid was hundreds of miles away (without a car) but still assumed she would be driving our car when home. Another insurance tactic: older daughter moved to a city and gave up her car and was charged a “surcharge” when she reinsured. Also, who needs this expense when attending college? No need here to restate how expensive higher education has become. Nobody has hundreds of dollars extra per month to own, drive, insure and maintain a car. Bottom line: it’s financial.

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