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.