Millennials, it turns out, own cars at just about the same rate as older generations, despite occasional hyperbolic headlines predicting the imminent death of the personal vehicle.
That’s the conclusion of a recent working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research that looked at car ownership in relation to age, marital status, urban or rural residence and other factors.
Not only do millennials own cars, but they drive more miles than older generations too.
And the new — but still hyperbolic — headlines are now proclaiming that millennials were hypocrites all along. They don’t really care about the environment or about good urban planning. They were just wasting their car payment money on their student loans and pretentious toast.
Full disclosure: Most definitions of the millennial generation would include me in its ranks. And I do own a car, which is unfortunately my primary method of transportation for the moment.
But notice that I said “unfortunately,” because I do not like driving my car.
It’s a perfectly decent vehicle and gets pretty good gas mileage, but I absolutely loathe using it to get around Charleston, even when there’s no traffic. It’s stressful and dangerous. And it’s ultimately pretty expensive as well.
I do not claim to speak for all millennials by any means, but I suspect that some of us drive cars not because we love to but because we don’t have many other viable options.
This most recent study, to be sure, only looked at hard data rather than asking if owning and driving a car was a preference or a necessity.
The paper’s authors hinted at that question by accounting for whether car owners lived in an urban or rural environment. But that’s not a very helpful dichotomy in most of the United States.
The farthest, most sprawled-out suburb of Charleston and the densest apartment building downtown would both count as “urban,” for example, even though the two are wildly different in terms of requiring daily car use.
I suspect that widespread housing affordability crises pushing some millennials farther out of urban centers might have a lot to do with the finding that we drive more miles as well.
And transit-poor “urban” Charleston gets lumped in with more traditionally urban cities like New York and Washington, D.C., that offer serious mass transit systems in addition to high-quality bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
In other words, millennial car ownership is complicated. I suspect there would be more of a measurable difference between my generation and our parents’ if asked something along the lines of “would you rather use a car than any other mode of transportation?”
That’s not what this study measured, though. And the raw numbers show that we millennials do indeed own cars, which really should not be surprising.
Despite the supposedly life-changing arrival of ride-share technology and tremendously valuable but still mostly insufficient investments in mass transit, sidewalks, bike lanes and other urban reshaping that would make cars less necessary, we still need cars in too many cases.
Uber and Lyft are great, but they’re not necessarily an economically feasible substitute for owning a car for most people. And I’m not holding my breath for the over-hyped self-driving revolution.
In fact, unless we double or, say, quadruple down on building safe, useful and pleasant transportation options — and stop massively subsidizing car ownership via free or cheap parking and multibillion-dollar road projects — I feel confident that every future generation will own a lot of cars and drive them a long way too.
That doesn’t mean we’ll be happy about it though.
Millennials are well acquainted with being blamed for any and every societal problem du jour, so chiding us for owning and driving cars is predictable. Fine.
But I would respectfully point out that many of us were born into cities that were already car-dependent. So that, at least, wasn’t our fault.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.