Do millennials hold the keys to a transportation revolution?

Experts predict that strict regulation is going to be necessary to promote a transportation revolution – a key strand of any smart city policy – but could millennials make it happen organically? And how else could their habits power change?

A study published in April by the University of California Davis and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy projects that an 80-percent reduction in carbon emissions is possible if cities embrace three revolutions in vehicle technology: automation, electrification, and most importantly, ride-sharing. In a more recent article on Vox author David Roberts argues that realizing the promised savings is highly unlikely without enacting strict governmental policies to discourage vehicle ownership, because people, especially Americans, are averse to ride-sharing and want to own cars.

“Fewer vehicles, far more intensively used (and thus rarely parked), free up a ton of road and parking space that can be turned over to walking, biking, or socializing. And freedom from private ownership will collectively save trillions of dollars a year on costs,” Roberts writes. “It’s a nice vision. But to be realized it must overcome two barriers. One is US aversion to active government. The other is an enormous amount of accrued habit and behavior on the part of affluent Westerners, particularly in the US, who are attached to the current system of private ownership and low occupancy. An alternative future that serves both climate and urbanist goals is possible, but only with farsighted planning and steady policy support. It will not happen on its own.”

Roberts’ chart below, sourced from the UC-Davis/IDTP study, shows the extent of regulation believed to be necessary to achieve the greatest reduction in carbon emissions.

He adds that the future of transportation and autonomous vehicles depends on us – “our willingness to discuss, debate, and plan for the future we want.” I tend to agree with him – I think planning along with thoughtful and fair regulation is key not only to reducing carbon output and improving quality of life in cities, but also to protecting privacy and leveling the playing field for telcos, and to preventing potentially catastrophic consequences of AI technology run amok. But I’m not entirely sure we’re right about the need for regulation to encourage a transportation revolution, and millennials are the reason why.

Millennials think differently

Millennials do not have the love affair with cars (or other material goods for that matter) that we Gen X’ers and baby boomers do. It’s possible that as they come into power economically, ride-sharing (including in autonomous vehicles) will become the transportation method of choice organically, without drastic regulation to encourage it.

My 21-year-old daughter recently graduated from college and is moving to Chicago for a job. The first thing she plans to do once she’s settled is give us back the car she’s been using. By contrast, my first move after landing a job as a college graduate was spending $5K on a car – and I was moving to Chicago too. My daughter is more than happy to take public transportation and use Uber and Lyft, and if sharing the ride is cheaper, even better.

“For me, it’s not even about the environmental impact – though that is certainly a plus to public transit and ride-sharing,” my daughter explains. “I just don’t want the added stress and expense of a car. If I have it my way, I will never waste another minute searching for a parking spot ever again. The commute to work is so much more enjoyable. I can read, plan or work on the way, and I show up to work in a productive mood.”

She’s not alone. Many millennials are opting not to even get a driver’s license. A recent report from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that 87 percent of 19-year-olds in 1983 possessed a driver’s license, but in 2014 that percentage had dropped to 69 percent. Other teen driving groups have also declined: 18-year-olds fell from 80 percent in 1983 to 60 percent in 2014; 17-year-olds dipped from 69 percent to 45 percent; and 16-year-olds plummeted from 46 percent to 24 percent.

The hybrid economy

Those of us over 50 view the world much differently than 20-year-olds. Our experience (in most Western countries, at least) has been in a regulated capitalist economy that has behaved in a certain way. With that world view to shape our thinking, we expect more of the same.

But as economic and social theorist Jeffrey Rifkin notes, millennials have grown up in a hybrid economic system that is part capitalist and part sharing economy. In a recent interview with Business Insider he referred to the sharing economy as capitalism’s “little fledgling baby.”

“What’s happening here is capitalism’s given birth to this sharing economy, basically, and it was not expected. It’s very fuzzy at this point, this little fledgling baby. You know, some of it capitalism’s trying to absorb into it, like Uber. In other cases, the sharing economy is becoming its own independent entity, like Wikipedia.

“But what needs to be understood is that regardless of the confused interaction between the capitalist market and its little fledgling baby is that the sharing economy is the first new economic system that’s entered onto the world stage since capitalism and socialism,” Rifkin adds. “So it’s a remarkable historical event, and the millennials are already in a hybrid economic system each day. Part of the day they’re in the market exchanging goods and services for profit, part of the day they’re in the sharing economy and freely producing and sharing goods and services with no profit beyond the market, not in the GDP, but improving the quality of life that they enjoy. And that’s not going to go away.”

No, it’s not. I’m willing to bet that the sharing portion of the economy will grow very quickly, perhaps much more quickly than we expect. It will experience growing pains to be sure, but the millennials will be in charge soon. And they may not have to be forced to do what’s best for the planet.

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    About The Author

    Managing Editor

    Dawn Bushaus began her career in technology journalism in 1989 at Telephony magazine, which means she’s been writing about networking for a quarter century. (She wishes she didn’t have to admit that because it probably gives you a good idea of how old she really is.) In 1996, Dawn joined a team of journalists to start a McGraw-Hill publication called, and in 2000, she helped a team at Ziff-Davis launch The Net Economy, where she held senior writing and editing positions. Prior to joining TM Forum, she worked as a freelance analyst for Heavy Reading.

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