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Road Worrier: Why Millennials are not into driving, so much

As a daily commuter from Orange County to Wake County, I’ve logged enough miles in 35 years to drive around the moon and back.

I’m a car person in a car country, this sprawling region whose economic engine – Research Triangle Park – is also the transit-repellent, suburban heart of its traffic problems.

All this routine driving from one county to another is nothing to brag about. And as the Triangle continues its relentless growth, it is nothing that can ever be sustained.

So I’m relieved to report that car geezers of my ilk are giving way to a younger, wiser generation: the car-averse Millennials. They’re driving a lot less than their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents, and also less than their young-adult to middle-age elders in Generation X.

Noreen McDonald, a city planning professor who heads the Carolina Transportation Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, compared the driving of Millennials who were between 19 and 30 in 2009 to that of Generation X’ers who were the same age in 1995.

The difference: 7 fewer miles each day, on average, for the Millennials – also called Generation Y, who were born roughly in the last two decades of the 20th Century.

Why are these twenty-somethings driving less? Americans of all ages have eased up on the gas pedal since 2004, our peak driving year. But these youngest adults have cut back much more. In a study published this month, McDonald pegged the change to generational differences in attitudes and in living situations.

“Millennials are getting more education – so they’re less likely to be employed, more likely to be in school, and they’re less likely to be married,” McDonald said. “They’ve been slower to go through some of the life phases. We know that people with children, people with jobs, they drive more.”

Teens and younger adults are less likely to have driver’s licenses. The state Division of Motor Vehicles has reported fewer teens getting learner’s permits every year. Nationally, only 78 percent of those aged 24 to 28 had driver’s licenses in 2013 – down from 87 percent in 1994.

“And people who are less concerned with having a nice car might be more concerned with having a nice smartphone,” McDonald said. With higher student debt, she added, they’re also less able to afford a car.

This cooling interest in driving was brought home at a Wake County transit planning meeting in late 2013. The speaker was Jesse Lipson, a Citrix executive then in the process of hiring hundreds of technology workers – median age 28, he said – for his company’s new downtown Raleigh office.

“I would say our employment base tends to be pretty progressive,” said Lipson, then 36. “They’re interested in things like living close to work, walking to work, biking to work, taking the bus and taking trains a lot more than most people do.”

The thought of driving to Durham for a business meeting was almost too hard to bear, he said.

“It feels like such a chore,” Lipson said. “It’s like a half-day project to get there, worry about the traffic and everything. If I was on a train or a bus or something where I could open my laptop and connect to the Internet, then it’s not a big deal. I can work. But if I’m having to drive there, it’s just totally dead time.”

Demographers say that, depending on where the birth-year dividing lines are drawn, Millennials are now or soon will become the nation’s most populous generation. Immigration is adding to their numbers, now about 75 million, as the Baby Boomers decline.

Wake, Durham and Orange counties expect to add 580,000 residents in just the next 20 years, hitting the 2 million mark by 2035. No one expects our road capacity to keep pace with that 40 percent population growth.

So it’s good to know that Millennials will be at the table when the Wake Board of Commissioners – including Jessica Holmes and Matt Calabria, both in their early 30s – develop an ambitious plan for beefed-up bus service and other transit improvements for consideration by voters next year.

Older residents have expressed strong feelings about whether rail transit should or should not be part of our future. But Tim Gardiner, a Wake transit planner, finds that Millennials aren’t hung up on differences between rubber tires and steel wheels. Sure, they want WiFi. But mostly, they just want to get there.

“There’s less of a bias against buses,” Gardiner said. “The Millennials are less interested in the technology than in the service. It’s ‘What I need is something that does this on this schedule.’”

Researcher David Raynor contributed.