Millennials are killing the car, and other lessons from the DVLA database of driving licences

See what you’re missing? Image: Getty.

For much of the late 20th century, the mark of reaching adulthood was acquiring your first car. It didn’t much matter that, at 17, its duties were mainly limited to travelling to a menial job or picking up mates to go into town – the fact that you could just get up and go to John O’Groats on a whim was part of the appeal.

But recent data released by the DVLA suggests that driving is losing its popularity among younger people. Only 538,000 licenses are held by those aged 25, who number around 900,000 in total. By comparison, 54 year olds – the most saturated year group – share 880,000 licenses among 937,000 people.

This is clearly a massive decline, and not one easily explained by the lacklustre Top Gear cast change. But what can this data tell us about Britain today, and what the future looks like?

Young people are more urban, and likely to stay that way

Millennials and Gen Z – that is, everyone under 40 – are far more likely to be in full-time education or work, and that overwhelmingly draws them to urban areas where a car is far less necessary for short journeys. Given that major public transport infrastructure also tends to cluster around cities, it makes far more economic sense for many of them to use buses, trains, and the occasional Uber than to cover fuel, insurance and parking costs on a permanent basis.

Similarly, a car is a mixed blessing for a generation used to short-term renting rather than long-term lets or property ownership – it’s useful for moving, but an additional expense which rules out city-centre living in many properties without access to parking.

The question we don’t yet know the answer to is what happens in two decades, when the non-driving generation displaces the biggest drivers as the cohort in middle age. The trend has historically been for young people to move to cities, then to migrate outwards to suburbs or countryside as they age, raise families and later retire.

But without as many cars, with rural public transport inevitably less advanced than that in urban centres, and with the age at which people have their first child increasing, it’s plausible that the younger generation will buck the trend, remaining in cities longer and accelerating the trend of urbanisation.

The Centre for Towns data on migration out of London demonstrates that this trend may already be underway. With the exception of the Home Counties and Cornwall, those leaving the capital are not leaving it for suburbs or small towns, but for other large cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham, to name a few.

The destination of migrants from London. Interactive version here. Source: Centre for Towns.

Our roads are about to get emptier

Besides the ten licenses held by those over 105, the number of drivers starts to drop with the age cohort born in 1964 and earlier – and goes off a cliff once people pass 68. This is a consequence of the increased cost of insurance premiums, the additional bureaucracy of mandatory license renewal every three years, and increasing health problems which rule out driving. These factors are not about to disappear, and the huge numbers of drivers currently between 40 and 60 look likely to drop out of the system over the next two decades.

Licences held by age. Image: author provided.

That drop is likely to coincide with the rise of driverless vehicles, increased use of ride-sharing apps, and increasing urbanisation, all of which raises the scent of the CityMetric reader’s dream – a chance to phase out private vehicle ownership more generally, to the benefit of our emissions statistics, air pollution rates, and road traffic fatality figures.

But as we live in the bad timeline, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. The difficulty and expense of running adequate public transport to cover small towns and villages in the countryside is just too great, at least for now. Still, a reduction in traffic is no bad thing.

Among young people, driving is more egalitarian than ever

There is no age bracket where women drivers outnumber men – the masculine image of the activity probably contributes to this discrepancy – but among young people who do drive, the gap is narrower than for any other group. Among 24 year olds, 93 women hold a license for every 100 men, while the equivalent figure for 50 year olds is just 87. This distinction is larger than it appears – 24 year olds are 52-48 per cent male, while the 50 year olds are 51-49 per cent female.

Drivers by gender. Image: author provided.

It’s the oldest generations where the divide becomes truly stark – of the 1,288 licenses held by 97-year olds, just 351 belong to women. Bear in mind, too, that thanks to differing life expectancies, there are almost three times as many 97 year old women as men.

The ratio shoots up dramatically among those aged 80 or older. The cohort of people born before the war would have come of age in the 1940s and 1950s, before widespread car ownership and when gender roles were far more strictly defined than would later be the case, but it’s still striking just how many nonagenarian men are confident in their abilities behind the wheel.

As numbers of license holders drop, it might be that younger generations show a re-emergence of the gender gap, as the declining popularity of driving ceases to mask discrepancies in work-related license ownership for heavily male occupations, such as hauliers, delivery drivers, construction workers and road maintenance crews. Then again, if the move away from driving proves terminal, it may not.

If you’d like to dig through the data and uncover more trends in our distribution of driving licenses, you can access the full dataset here.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.