William Watson: Forget the post-automobile future. Turns out ‘green’ millennials are car crazy


Listening to CBC’sCross-Country Checkupas I was driving — in my car — from Montreal to Ottawa on Sunday, I was struck by how many callers seemed to believe Ottawa’s new carbon tax would only make a dent in global warming if it were a prelude to a completely different society and social structure. On CBC’sTapestryearlier in the afternoon, a David Suzuki sound-alike referred to this same kind of new world order as an “ecological civilization.” Because human experience with completely new ways of living introduced quickly and from above has not been especially happy, this is not an encouraging prescription.

Part of the problem is the very vehicle I was driving in, the personal automobile. To hear many callers, personal cars will either have to soon go electric or be done away with altogether. (I wonder how many other Cross Country listeners heard this message while driving.) Electric cars only help, of course, if the electricity they use comes from carbon-free sources that, unlike wind and solar, are on-call 24/7, a detail not mentioned by many of their call-in advocates.

A subtext of some calls was that the new social attitudes required to bring about hugely ambitious changes in consumption patterns are on their way, as the millennial generation comes galloping over the hill like the U.S. cavalry in an old-fashioned (and no doubt patriarchal, colonial and eight-other-ways-damnable) western. A common view of millennials is that, unlike their baby boomer forebears, they have much more “green” and “sustainable” preferences.

Unfortunately, they don’t. A new study by economist Christopher R. Knittel of MIT and Elizabeth Murphy, a renewable-power project manager at Genser Energy, suggests millennials — defined as people born in 1980 or the years just after — are every bit as fond of cars as are boomers (those born 1946–64), and maybe even more so.

To come to this conclusion Knittel and Murphy looked at both car ownership and miles driven per year in the U.S. between 1990 to 2017. The raw data do show that millennials have roughly 2,000 fewer “vehicle miles travelled” per year and own 0.4 fewer vehicles per household than boomers do. With mean car ownership in the U.S. being 1.39 cars, that basically means they own one car instead of the average of one and four-tenths. (Four-tenths of a car would be aSmartcar, I guess.)

But once Knittel and Murphy control for economic and demographic variables that presumably influence car use and ownership — income, education, size of family, “urbanity” (which is not a measure of suaveness but of whether people live in a city or not) — that difference declines. And the difference disappears when, for comparison, they eliminate older boomers — for whom there are no equivalents among millennials, since the oldest a millennial can be in this study’s end-year is 37.

To be precise, millennials’ car ownership is three one-hundredths of a car less than boomers (which is what? A set of snow tires?). Plus, that difference isn’t statistically significant, i.e., it’s a result of the natural randomness that says it would be a fluke if the two numbers were exactly the same. As the authors conclude, “These results suggest that millennials’ preferences for vehicle ownership are not so different from prior generations.”

As for “vehicle miles travelled” per year, after controlling for the different possible influences on this variable, Knittel and Murphy conclude that millennials actually travel a littlemorethan boomers do, which is not so surprising given millennials’ reputation for wanderlust. Because the researchers’ sample of millennials does top out at 37 years, while their oldest boomer could be 73, they also do some “nearest-neighbour” analysis. “Nearest-neighbour” picks out millennials and boomers who are very closely matched in their background economic and demographic data and then looks at their numbers for vehicles owned and vehicle-miles travelled. For many of us that gives more intuitively persuasive results: Find people who are more or less identical except for being in different generations and see how their behaviour differs. The answer is that it doesn’t. Or actually it does, but not in the way urban mythology says. To wit, millennials drive 2,234moremiles per year than boomers and own almost four one-hundredths of a carmore. That’s obviously only a tiny difference in ownership but what’s noteworthy is that it’s in the opposite direction to what many people would assume.

In short, millennials like their cars just as much as boomers do. But why shouldn’t they? Has there ever been a greater freedom machine? In the time it took the CBC to run a couple of radio programs, I was able, on my own timetable, to get myself, a passenger and a pile of luggage from Montreal to Ottawa, a trip that in earlier times would have taken days, if not weeks.

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