Quick Bite | Young people are falling out of love with cars

We all know about the growing popularity of electric vehicles. But perhaps less well known is that young people (particularly in the rich countries) are feeling less and less inclined to drive cars at all.


Few technologies defined the 20th century more than the car. On the surface, the love affair with the personal automobile continues unabated, and the number of drivers on the world’s roads continues to rise. But there are signs this is changing. Getting a driving licence in developed countries was once nearly universal, whereas now it is something that a growing minority of young people either ignore or actively oppose, into their 20s and beyond.


In the US, 25 years ago 43% of 16-year-olds had driving licences, but by 2020 the number had fallen to 25%. Nor is it just teenagers. 20% of Americans aged between 20 and 24 do not have a licence, up from 8% in 1983. The proportion of people with licences has fallen for every age group under 40, and on the latest data, is still falling. And those who do have licences are driving less. Between 1990 and 2017 the distance driven by teenage drivers in America declined by 35%, and those aged 20-34 by 18%. It is entirely older drivers who account for increasing traffic, as baby boomers who grew up with cars do not tend to give them up in retirement.


A similar trend is well-established in Europe. In Britain, the proportion of teenagers able to drive has almost halved, from 41% to 21%, in the past 20 years. Across the countries of the European Union, there are more cars than ever. Yet even before COVID-19 lockdowns emptied the roads, the average distance travelled by each one had fallen by more than 10% since 2000.


The trend is especially strong in big cities. One study of five European capitals – Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Paris, and Vienna found the number of driving trips made by working people was down substantially since a peak in the 1990s. In Paris, the number of trips made per resident has fallen below the levels of the 1970s.

Source: Statista


Why is this happening, and what does it mean?

The growth of the internet is one obvious answer. The more you shop online, or stream films at home, the less need there is to drive. Other reasons might be a rise in poorly paid jobs, a decline in home ownership, a tendency to spend longer in education, and improvements in public transport. The rise of apps such as Uber and Lyft has contributed, as have higher insurance premiums for young drivers. Driving generally is more expensive. Many large cities have introduced congestion costs for CBD driving, and parking is often prohibitive. Another explanation could be worries about climate change amongst the most committed.


One implication of this trend is a potential decrease in demand for personal vehicles, a shift in consumer behavior that could have negative implications for automakers and suppliers, as well as for the oil and gas industry. It could point to a growing preference for urban living and a desire for more sustainable modes of transportation. Companies that are positioned to benefit from these trends, such as those focused on urban development or clean energy, might become more attractive.


In the less developed countries in Asia and Africa, however, it seems likely personal cars will remain as popular as ever.




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