Jeffrey Ball writes in The New Republic:
What’s going on?
Some contend that, in effect, America’s youth are growing up. The Millennials, they say, see adult autonomy in a new sort of contraption: no longer a physical conveyance with four wheels, but now a virtual conveyance with two earbuds. “The Driving Boom—a six-decade-long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States—is over,” claimed last year’s report from PIRG and the Frontier Group, a study that effusively championed such an outcome and that advocated a number of policy moves intended to hasten it. Millennials—today’s older teenagers and twenty-somethings—are, said the study, which spurred widespread press coverage, “demonstrating significantly different lifestyle and transportation preferences than older generations.”
(Even if today’s young Americans are that anti-auto, environmentalists shouldn’t break out their green Champagne just yet: Whatever happens in the U.S., there are many times more young people in developing countries like China and India, and their demonstrably increased interest in driving is likely to overshadow any ecological gains from reduced driving here.)
Others observers see something more passive and less revolutionary at play in the declining propensity of American young people to drive: Baby Boomers are aging beyond their peak driving years, years that coincided with unbridled American economic growth and with cheap gasoline, and Millennials are approaching their own peak driving years at a time of recession and high pump prices. “Youth are making choices about their travel that are being influenced by the constraints of their personal income,” said a report published last year by the Federal Highway Administration. “[I]s the car still a symbol of freedom for youth as it has been for previous generations?” it asked. “[F]or most youth, the answer is `yes.’”
There's enough critique in here to make some in the planning and design professions wince, though I welcome the hard questions. Ball focuses heavily on the economic argument, which no doubt is a primary factor.
For my money, I think we can't ignore the cultural argument as well. That, perhaps, after 70 years or so of the car culture, people are just growing tired of it and looking for something else. Perhaps, just perhaps, some percentage of the country is realizing that owning a car doesn't necessarily translate to mobility and more important, to happiness.