Like Millennials, More Older Americans Steering Away From Driving

Feb 11, 2016
Originally published on February 11, 2016 2:45 pm

A growing number of Americans are driving less and getting rid of their cars.

The trend is gaining traction in middle-aged adults, to the point where fewer of them are even bothering to get or renew their driver's licenses, but it's been prominent among younger adults — millennials — for years now.

"Honestly, at this point, it just doesn't really seem worth it," says 25-year-old Peter Rebecca, who doesn't own a car or have a driver's license. "I mean, I live in Chicago, there's really good access to, you know, public transits for pretty cheap."

The student at Harold Washington College downtown lives just a couple of blocks from a rail stop on the Northwest side. In the warmer months, Rebecca says, he uses a bike.

"I've got a bunch of grocery stores in walking distance, and even then I can use the bus if I have to get further," he says.

Rebecca is hardly alone, especially among young adults in urban areas.

"Over the past several decades, particularly for the youngest age groups, there's been a pretty large decrease in the number of people who have been getting driver's licenses," says Brandon Schoettle, a researcher at the University of Michigan.

He led a new study published by University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute that studied the proportion of people with driver's licenses over the years.

According to the study, only 69 percent of 19-year-olds have a driver's license in 2014, compared with almost 90 percent in 1983. The percentage of 20-somethings with driver's licenses has also fallen by 13 percent over the past three decades, and fewer Americans in their 30s and 40s now have driver's licenses.

Susan Schell might soon be one of them. The manager of a Starbucks on Chicago's northwest side says her driver's license is up for renewal this month, yet she doesn't own a car.

"I used to. I got rid of it just because it's too much of a pain in the butt to have in Chicago, and we kept getting tickets and I just didn't want to deal with it," Schell says.

In addition to living in a city that is relentless in doling out parking tickets, Schell says, there's the cost of insurance, gas and maintenance on top of the cost of the car itself. Her husband recently let his driver's license expire because they take public transit to work, and they have other options for shopping.

"We use services like Instacart a lot," she says. "... If we've done, like, a big trip at Target or something, we just call an Uber. There's so many options when you live in a city."

Schoettle says now this trend is not just limited to teenagers and those in their 20s.

"For some of the oldest age groups, which had seen relatively large increases in licensing over the past few decades, finally seemed to have peaked and have started to show some small decreases in licensing," he says. "And so, for the first time in the series of reports that we've done, we've kind of seen a decrease in the percentage of people with a license across all age groups."

Forty-eight-year-old Raul Chavez hasn't renewed his driver's license since it expired more than a year ago — and he keeps his car parked.

"It's quite a bit expensive, because you have to have insurance," he says. "The latest two years, I use public transportation and I really enjoy it because it's cheap and it's reliable everywhere you're gonna go."

Schoettle says that's one of the main reasons more Americans of all ages are going without driver's licenses.

"There's been a shift publicly for people to move to things like public transportation that just wasn't there back in the '80s and '90s, partly because there's sometimes better public transportation in certain areas than there was a few decades ago, and a little more concern about the environment," he says.

Schoettle says he'll be watching to see if cheaper gas might now reverse the trend.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We've got some bad news for the auto industry. Americans are driving less, and more of us are ditching our cars. The number of young adults without a car has been growing for years. Now middle-aged adults are also choosing to walk or bike or take the bus, as NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Twenty-five-year-old Peter Rebecca doesn't have a car. He never has. In fact, he's never even had a driver's license.

PETER REBECCA: Honestly, at this point doesn't really seem worth it. I mean, I live in Chicago. There's really good access to, you know, public transits for pretty cheap.

SCHAPER: The student at Harold Washington College downtown lives just a couple of blocks from an L stop on the Northwest side.

REBECCA: I've got a bunch of grocery stores in walking distance and even then I can use the bus if I have to get further.

SCHAPER: And in the warmer months...

REBECCA: I do own a bike. But I mean, it's winter now. I don't really use it right now.

SCHAPER: Peter Rebecca's hardly alone, especially among young adults in urban areas. And that's not really a surprise, according to a new study from the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

BRANDON SCHOETTLE: Over the past several decades, particularly for the youngest age groups, there's been a pretty large decrease in the number of people who have been getting driver's licenses.

SCHAPER: But researcher Brandon Schoettle says now this trend is not just limited it to teenagers and 20-somethings.

SCHOETTLE: For some of the oldest age groups which had seen relatively large increases in licensing over the past few decades finally seem to have peaked and have started to show some small decreases in licensing. And so for the first time in the series of reports that we've done, we've kind of seen a decrease in the percentage of people with a license across all age groups.

SCHOETTLE: According to Schoettle's study, only 59 percent of 19-year-olds have a driver's license today, compared to almost 90 percent of them in 1983. The percentage of 20-somethings with drivers licenses has fallen 13 percent over the last three decades, and fewer Americans in their 30s and 40s have driver's licenses. Susan Schell might soon be one of them. The manager of this Starbucks on Chicago's Northwest side says her driver's license is up for renewal this month, yet she doesn't own a car.

SUSAN SCHELL: I used to. I got rid of it just because it's too much of a pain in the butt to have in Chicago, and we kept getting tickets. And I just didn't want to deal with it.

SCHAPER: In addition to living in a city that's relentless in doling out parking tickets, Schell says there's the cost of insurance, gas, maintenance on top of the cost of the car itself. Her husband recently let his driver's license expire because they take public transit to work and they have other options for shopping.

SCHELL: We use, like, services like Instacart a lot. We've done Ubers if we've done, like, a big trip to Target or something. We just call an Uber. There's so many options when you live in a city.

SCHAPER: Forty-eight-year-old Raul Chavez hasn't renewed his driver's license since it expired over a year ago, and he keeps his car parked.

RAUL CHAVEZ: It's quite a bit expensive. You have to have insurance.

SCHAPER: Instead...

CHAVEZ: The latest two years, I use public transportation. I really enjoy it because it's cheap, and it's reliable everywhere you're going to go.

SCHAPER: University of Michigan researcher Brandon Schoettle says that's one of the main reasons more Americans of all ages are going without driver's licenses.

SCHOETTLE: There's been a shift publicly for people to move to things like public transportation that just wasn't there back in the '80s and '90s partly because there's sometimes better public transportation in certain areas than there was a few decades ago and a little more concern about the environment.

SCHOETTLE: Schoettle says he'll be watching to see if cheaper gas might now reverse the trend. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.