It might be too soon to know, but trends show that Gen Z could become the generation that finally shifts their preference towards more sustainable forms of mobility. Typically born between 1995 and 2012, Gen Z or Zoomers are not only considered to be the first truly digitally native generation but are also known for their passion concerning climate change. Studies show that they are already making a difference by using ride-sharing services, electric scooters, and public transportation more frequently than previous generations, but will this trend remain pass their 30s, and can Zoomers really become the force of change towards car-free cities?
When looking at different countries, there is a common trend that Gen Z is driving less around the world. Research indicates that only 25% of 16-year-old have a driver’s license in the US and in countries like Spain this even applies to older generations, less than half of the population under 34 has a license. In Japan the trend even shows that 60% of Gen Z doesn’t even want to drive, but can this numbers really translate into a future of car-free cities? What is really driving this behavior?
While it’d be nice to attribute this drop in driving to environmentalism, it’s worth considering the other factors contributing to the decline. One is the cost and availability of cars themselves. The pandemic saw an unprecedented constriction of the auto supply chain, compounded for European manufacturers like VW by the war in Ukraine. Used and new car prices skyrocketed, and in the US the cost to insure a car rose 14% between 2022 and 2023. In the 2010’s millennials were similarly heralded as the generation to end driving, but as their household incomes have increased millennials have almost caught up to their boomer parents in their rate of car ownership. It is possible that Gen Z is similarly priced out of driving, and only time will tell if they are simply delaying learning to drive (in a similar way they are delaying other expensive life milestones like marriage or moving out) or if they are expressing a true shift in values. Technology and changing norms about work and socializing might also be a contributing factor. As online options for both work and socializing flourished during COVID, the need for car trips declined as remote work and education became the norm. The years since the pandemic’s peak show that at least some of the trends in remote work are here to stay, although it’s worth noting that the level of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has returned to pre-pandemic levels in the US.
The stakes for decreasing car dependency are high. Cars are still one of the world’s primary causes of GHG emissions, and even the shift to electric cars carries its own environmental impacts and the vehicles remain out of reach for many. Ultimately, it is still too early to tell if Gen Z’s drop in driving a result of temporary factors like car prices and COVID-era remote work/school arrangements or part of a bigger cultural shift is. The millennial case study should be a cautionary tale for planners, a drop in car ownership must be met with similar investments in alternative transportation means if it has hopes to stick.
As placemakers and city planners, we understand that the more a city embraces sustainable forms of mobility, all generations will slowly opt out from their car dependency. By making sure people spend more time on the streets, either walking or cycling, we can not only impact climate change but also the growing trend of social isolation. For Gen Z, who routinely report high levels of stress and loneliness, this last point may be an unintended but vital benefit of a true mode-shift. Sustainable mobility also promotes social equity by improving access to public spaces for people of all ages, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, a key point for successful placemaking initiatives. As years go by, it will be interesting to see how cities embracing sustainable mobility really shift their dependence towards cars. Two good case studies to keep track of will be Los Angeles and Austin, cities that where completely designed around the car and have aggressive goals and investments that champion sustainable mobility. This is a crucial moment where a generation’s mode-choice is still anyone’s guess, and it will require transit improvements big and small to put them on the right track.