Commuters at Vienna, VA Metro stationThe Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC brings together about 12,000 folks from around the world to share their diverse experiences with a wide variety of flu strains. Sharing also occurred through some 800 technical sessions, countless committee meetings, and 2,300 technical papers on everything from Accelerated Pavement Testing to Young Drivers. The meeting is a great opportunity to gain insight on societal and technological trends, and how they intersect with land use and transportation planning practices.

Talking ‘ Bout My Trip Generation

Will Drive for Food logoFor instance, everyone knows that today’s kids don’t drive their father’s Oldsmobiles, right? Or better yet, common knowledge suggests, they don’t drive much at all; the desire to cruise replaced instead by social media and fueled by greater environmental consciousness. Actually, it turns out that today’s kids share the same travel tendencies as their counterparts two decades ago.

Brian Taylor and Kelcie Ralph of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs presented their research on the last three editions of the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey (NPTS) in 1990, 2001, and 2009. They found that folks under the age of 26 are driving less than the same cohort did in 2001, but at about the same rate as young folks did in 1990. The difference? It’s the economy; with the recessionary effects felt strongest at the lowest end of the age spectrum. For instance, in 2001 the employment rate among 16-year olds was 40%; by 2008 it was below 20%. This not only reduces the amount of travel to get to and from those vanishing jobs, but also the amount of discretionary travel to spend that disappearing discretionary income.

Have iPad, Will Travel

TV spots Chevron baby carriagesThe current thinking is also that societal changes might dampen travel by young people, due to more boomerang kids living with their parents, tighter drivers licensing requirements in many states, and the ability to connect virtually and digitally rather than F2F. But Taylor and Ralph also found that in all three years, the boomerang kids actually travel more than their peers who are living on their own (so yes, you actually can go home again, but perhaps you won’t want to hang out with the people there…). Similarly, those who are plugged in to the web on a daily basis travel 20% to 30% more than those who aren’t as wired, suggesting that social media is a complement to, rather than a substitute for, travel (anyone remember the concept of the paperless office?). And interesting enough, stricter licensing requirements aren’t reducing PMT among young people; it appears they’re perhaps just being chaufferred by their parents rather than by their peers.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So we know that folks of all ages are traveling less (total US vehicle miles of travel has fallen about 3% from its 2008 peak), and we’re fairly confident that the economy has played a key role in that decline. But what does the future hold? One argument would suggest that the combination of a recovering economy and aging generation of Millenials will lead to a rebound in PMT and VMT. A counter-argument would suggest that perhaps the Millenials, having acclimated to a lower-travel lifestyle during the Great Recession, will retain that behavior, assisted by supportive lower-carbon government policies and housing market products, even as their means for travel increases. The MAP-21 emphasis on performance-based planning will help us monitor, and even guide, these megatrends.