Millennials Aren’t So Different After All, According to Analysis of Travel Survey

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | July 20, 2016

Much has been made of the millennial. No end of scorn seems to find its way to the generation of Americans born between the early 1980s and early 2000s and the different way they do things. More of them live at home with their parents later in life. They get married later than their parents did. They seem to prioritize a mobile, urban life over the picture of settled suburbia. But are millennials really so different from the generations before them?

That’s what researchers Ram Pendyala, Venu Garikapati and Patricia Mokhtarian of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, along with Eric Morris from Clemson University and Noreen McDonald from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, set out to determine by analyzing data from the American Time Use Survey, a nationally representative sample taken by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that offers detailed information about how people spend their time both in and out of the home. Looking at data from 2003 through 2013, the researchers sought to establish whether millennials truly were different in their travel patterns and preferences.

The Urban Edge spoke with Ram Pendyala about the survey analysis and whether millennials are leading us into a revolutionized transit world. This piece has been edited for length and clarity.

So much has been written about millennials and their choices. What drew you to this subject?

In this case, I was specifically drawn to studying millennials because there is so much written in the popular media and a lot of what is written is rather contradictory and appears laced with hyperbole. [It’s often] based on anecdotal evidence or data from surveys conducted at one point in time.

You cite a lot of other surveys and studies that paint a kind of confusing picture of millennials — they want to live in suburbs, their behaviors are more about geography than age, they delay the typical life milestones, so what’s the truth here — are millennials truly doing things differently in a social fabric-altering way? And how do their transportation choices play into that?

Indeed, there are many studies and surveys that provide a conflicting picture of millennials with respect to their attitudes, preferences, and behaviors.

The truth may, at least in part, be in the eye of the beholder. Based on our analyses, and some of the more recent reports of surveys describing millennial attitudes and behaviors, it appears that the truth is more likely to be aligned with the notion that millennials are not game-changers after all. They are not necessarily altering the social fabric any more than prior generations did.

Every generation has seen change take place, and these changes are largely due to the “times in which they lived” – not necessarily because they were fundamentally different in their attitudes, approach to life, and perceptions and values. Each generation simply responded to the forces, technologies, and priorities that existed at the time of their life.

Travel demand, measured by vehicle miles of travel, is rebounding very strongly from the low point during the depths of the recession. In other words, a lot of the decrease in vehicle miles of travel per capita can be attributed to the recession and not to the notion that millennials were fundamentally different in their travel behavior.

Now, having said that, there appear to be some lingering differences among millennials with respect to travel characteristics and mode usage, especially when it comes to “drive-alone” mode use. However, this lingering difference can be explained by the delayed lifecycle milestones for millennials and the availability of new transportation alternatives, such as Uber and Lyft.

So, we find that millennials are behaving quite differently when compared with previous generations at early adulthood, but they are showing clear signs of settling into the patterns of behavior exhibited by prior generations as they advance in age and experience more mature lifecycle stages. And any differences that persist are easily explained by period effects and delayed lifecycle milestones.

What’s the biggest difference between older and younger millennials when it came to travel that you found?

We found that younger millennials travel less by the “drive alone” mode than their older millennial counterparts. So, when we compare younger millennials and older millennials when they were both respectively 18-24 years of age, we notice that younger millennials who are 18-24 years old in 2012-2013 spend less time driving alone than did older millennials when they were 18-24 years old in 2003-2004.

It is possible that younger millennials are driving less because of the after-effects of the recession and the availability of new transportation alternatives that makes it easier to get around without having to drive a car. But, younger millennials are generally traveling less overall and spending less time doing activities outside the home when compared with older millennials.

At this stage, we can only conjecture that this is largely because of period effects.

One lingering difference you mention is car driving. So, millennials tend to drive less, versus riding in a car as a passenger, for example, even as they age. That seems significant. What ramifications could that have for planners and cities? 

Yes, the lingering difference in car driving does seem significant. However, we conjecture that this difference is going to fade as millennials age further, experience mature and advanced lifecycle milestones — entry into labor force, marriage, having children, taking care of elderly parents — and gain income as the economy continues to recover and they are able to afford homeownership. In the absence of any other radical technological, economic, or energy price changes, it is unlikely that these differences in car driving are going to persist for much longer.

So, the ramifications for planners and transportation engineers are two-fold. First, planners and engineers should not assume that travel demand is going to be lower than in the past. Although there was considerable talk of a “new normal” in travel demand, particularly in the depths of the economic recession, the truth of the matter is that the analysis in this paper combined with the trends in travel demand in the most recent years show that travel demand is here to stay and will continue to grow.

Second, planners and engineers should think about strategies that they can deploy to try and maximize the duration and benefits accruing from lower levels of car use in early adulthood seen among millennials. Planners and engineers should identify urban development patterns, transportation policies and investments, and any other strategies that would motivate these individuals to continue driving less and exhibit sustainable transport behaviors for as long as possible. Over time, such strategies, policies, and land use patterns may actually help bring about more permanent changes in the urban fabric and how people live and move around, even as they age.

What do you think are the major explanations for their behaviors? What are some of the period effects particular to them?

The period is characterized by severe economic recession and its aftermath, explosive growth in the availability and use of technology and social media, availability of new transportation alternatives, a cultural shift associated with the diversification of America, shift in parenting approaches (much more helicopter parenting and parents happy to chauffeur teenagers well past the minimum driving age) and a delay in achievement of lifecycle milestones, which may in turn be due to period effects as well.

By the time you account for all of these factors, it is likely that fundamental shifts in attitudes or perceptions or values play a really small role in contributing to differences in behaviors that the media and other outlets have made a big deal about.

So, are you a millennial? Do you feel like you fit your generation’s travel patterns?

I am not a millennial, but I am the parent of two millennials and virtually all of my students are millennials. The first author of this study, Venu Garikapati, is a former Ph.D. student and now a post-doctoral research fellow in my research group. He is an older millennial.

While I haven’t done a rigorous survey of any sort, anecdotal evidence based on my observations of my own children and students suggest that our findings are generally consistent with patterns of behavior exhibited over time, including but not limited to, acquiring multiple cars, shifting to car driving, moving into the suburbs, searching for home ownership, and so on.

I personally feel that the millennial generation, in the end, is actually turning out to be very similar to my own generation in many ways. I doubt that a utopian future of radically different land use and transport patterns, often depicted in the media and attributed to the mindset of the millennials, is on the horizon anytime soon.

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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