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Every generation thinks it's going to change the world.
The Millennials, born between 1983 and 2000, already are driving a big change, according to a study released Tuesday. Younger Americans are driving less, stopping a six-decade-long rise, the report from two advocacy groups concludes.
"The driving boom of the 20th century is over," said Garo Manjikian, legislative advocate for CalPIRG, a California nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on a range of consumer and energy issues, which prepared the report with the Frontier Group, a policy research organization.
Millennials seem to be more willing to put off getting a driver's license and feel less need to get behind the wheel because of the high cost of owning a car, a preference for living in cities where parking is at a premium and the influence of technology, which makes it less necessary to drive to work, shop or visit friends.
The overall drop in driving also appears to be influenced by higher gas prices, environmental awareness and aging Baby Boomers surrendering their driver's licenses.
For the eighth consecutive year, the average number of miles driven by Americans has dropped, the report found. That's a change from a trend that started after World War II and continued until 2005. Driving per capita nationally is at a rate similar to 1996 levels, the report said.
"For nearly a decade now, Americans are driving less than before," Manjikian said.
The advocacy groups said their report should influence the conversation about transportation planning, especially since Millennials play the most crucial role in changing driving trends, the report said. Data in the report came from a wide variety of sources, including the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Census Bureau.
People ages 16 to 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than the same age group in 2001 - a steeper drop than other age groups, the report found. Car ownership has dropped by about 4 percent since 2006, and the percentage of Americans older than 16 with driver's licenses has fallen to 86 percent - a 30-year low. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, the number with driver's licenses dropped to 67 percent, a level not seen since 1963, the report says.
The days of automatically heading to the DMV on your 16th birthday seem to be over, a number of recent studies have found.
Not till 20s
"At Berkeley, a lot of students don't have driver's licenses," said Marc Madrigal, 26, a staff pastor for a student Christian group on the Cal campus. "I see a lot of people delaying getting their driver's licenses until their mid-20s."
The report acknowledges that the recession probably played a big part in the Millennials' dip in driving, but notes that the decline started before the recession, and that driving, per capita, among 16- to 34-year-olds with jobs decreased by 16 percent between 2001 and 2009. It also suggests that new restrictions on young drivers can increase both the cost and hassle of getting a license and driving, and may discourage driving.
But cultural preferences also make a big difference, the study says. Millennials are twice as likely to want to live in a city with a mix of residences, shops, restaurants and parks, and access to public transportation.
Technology also is a factor, the report suggests, with younger adults doing more shopping and socializing online than by hopping into a car and driving. Mobile technologies have also made it easier to find out when to catch a bus or train, or to arrange a ride without actually getting behind the wheel.
If the current trend continues, the report says, the amount of travel by car could stay below the 2007 peak. That may happen if the students hanging out in UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza during finals week are any indication. Several said they don't own cars and have few friends who do. Even those with cars said they also take transit, ride bikes or walk.
"I definitely drive less than my parents did," said James Severson, 22, a graduating mathematics major who hopes to work and live in San Francisco. "Where they live, you can't get from point A to point B without a car."
Tabitha Peterson, a 19-year-old psychology major, left her car at home in rural Yuba County when she moved to Berkeley and started riding the bus - Cal students get AC Transit passes as part of their student fees - and walking.
"It was a big adjustment," she said. "But I'm used to it now. It's easier to walk or take the bus."
Allie Hughes, 20, a sophomore studying physics and astrophysics, agrees. She's headed back to her family home in Newport Beach for the summer, and in Orange County she expects she'll have to drive or be driven almost everywhere.
"It'll be kind of weird," she said. "I'll have to go back to driving. It makes me sad."
The report, titled "A New Direction," doesn't predict or advocate transportation policies that penalize or discourage drivers, Manjikian said. But it does say that the nation needs to plan for a future in which people won't want to drive as much.
"It's time for our leaders to recognize the tremendous shift in driving," he said. "We need to press the reset button on our transportation policy."
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