It’s an idea that stubbornly refuses to die: the notion that we are on the road to an ever-diminishing role for the personal vehicle. We first commented on this trend some 18 months ago with reference to a U.S. Prig Education Fund report titled “The Driving Boom is Over.” The report cited several factors in support of its ominous title: • On average, Americans are driving fewer miles than in the past • The number of public-transportation trips has steadily increased • The percentage of young people with a driver’s license has been on the decline for years • Younger drivers account for fewer new-car sales than in the past
Much of the blame for these developments — none of which works to the benefit of car-care-business operators — is attributed to Millennials’ assumed lack of interest in automobiles and driving.
Not everybody is convinced. The Prig study was followed by J.D. Power’s 2014 U.S. Automotive Media and Marketing Report, which dismissed this assumed disinterest as myth. Within the year, MTV produced a research study titled “Millennials Have Drive,” which claimed to have uncovered an increase in young people’s passion for cars and car ownership.
The subject is raised yet again, by no less an authority than a former New York City traffic commissioner. In his book, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, Samuel I. Schwartz warns that Millennials driving fewer miles is the one change that will change everything. In a book excerpt appearing on salon.com, he expands on one of the Prig study’s findings, noting that in 2009, Millennials’ average vehicle miles traveled (VMT) stood at 7,900 compared to the 10,300 VMT recorded by their same-age predecessors in 2001. Millennials also made more bike and public-transportation trips. He concludes that if all 80 million Millennials stick to their driving habits for the next 25 years, the U.S. population will have grown by 21 percent, but total VMT will be less than it is today and per capita VMT will “fall off the table.”
If this gives pause, the thoughts of Erin Baker, car columnist for the British newspaper The Telegraph, are enough to induce hyperventilation. Millennials are yesterday’s news, she claims, declaring that Generation Z (loosely defined as those born 1993 and later) “is where it’s at,” and that carmakers are looking at this cohort with increasing concern. The reason: “this demographic is looking as if it won’t buy cars at all.“ She characterizes this as “a massive bullet coming down the line” that is moving carmakers to come up with alternative ways of selling cars.
Ford’s manager of global consumer trends and futuring, Sheryl Connelly, is considering, for example, Gen Z’s willingness to share car ownership rather than opt for sole ownership, Baker reports. Gen Z’s aversion to long-term ownership, a result of being conditioned by constantly updated tech products, is another cohort characteristic of which the Ford executive is taking account.
This ties in neatly with already established Millennial preferences, such as the “rent-rather-than-buy” attitude identified by Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing — a preference that explains the existence and success of car-share businesses like Zipcar. Not to be outdone, Ford has already launched GoDrive, a car-sharing scheme of its own in London. As one of Baker’s sources succinctly puts it: Today, access triumphs over ownership.