Millennials Put Brakes on the Car Culture

ATLANTA (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS) -

When Yotam Auz climbs behind the wheel of his 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, he often thinks he’d rather be on foot.

Like many millennials, the 26-year-old will put pedal to metal for groceries, little trips around town or to go to work during the winter or on bad weather days. Otherwise, he prefers to leave the Jeep parked and commute on Atlanta’s MARTA transit system or walk to restaurants within walking distance of his home.

“To be honest with you, I would love to get rid of my car altogether,” said Auz, who moved from his native Israel to Atlanta four years ago. “But I can’t because Atlanta’s public transportation is not as broad as other cities and I don’t want to be that (person) that bothers everyone for a ride. But I moved to the city to feel like I live in a city.”

Recent Studies from AutoTrader. com, the NPD Group, the Atlanta Regional Commission and others have found that the love for cars that defined much of America for the past five decades is eluding millennials. That could have major implications for carmakers, city planners and developers.

A job market that is paying less than it did for young workers in the past and record-breaking student debt is making car ownership out of reach for many millennials.

For carmakers, that means creating marketing that is more practical than aspirational. Instead of flaunting how quickly a car can zip from 0 mph to 60 mph or the smoothness of its ride over long distances, car manufacturers must lure millennials — defined as young adults from 18 to 34 — by focusing on mileage and tech amenities such as Bluetooth phone connections or text via voice command, experts said.

Carless millennials also could potentially nudge cities like Atlanta into a more walkable and transit-oriented direction. Millennials’ desire to live in town is one factor behind a surge in apartment construction here. It’s also played a role in some employers’ real-estate decisions, such as insurer State Farm’s move to build a massive project near a MARTA station.

“I suspect that the attitudes that we are seeing now are becoming the new normal,” said David Portalatin, an auto analyst for NPD Group.

There are caveats. Researchers have found that millennials’ car-buying habits start to resemble Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers if they have children or as they become more economically stable. Just how much millennials have abandoned the love of cars also depends on the region and access to public transportation.

Still the experts said their surveys of millennials found that they tend to buy their first car at a later age than in previous generations and increasingly prefer to work in areas that offer robust public transportation.

And, in a major break with tradition, anywhere from 31 percent to 36 percent of younger millennials have shown no interest in getting their driver’s licenses when they turn 16, the legal age to drive in the U.S. without adult supervision, according to NPD Group, a New York-based consumer research firm and Atlanta-based AutoTrader.

That could create a challenge for the car industry in the future. While vehicle sales have soared in the past few years because of an improving economy, Americans also are keeping cars longer — on average about 11 years — because vehicles are better-made.

Millennials, the biggest generation since Baby Boomers, will be expected to pick up the slack when the current buying spree ends. The problem is that large numbers are attracted to older vehicles because of their lower cost and good quality, opening up the potential to hurt future new-car sales.

Ford’s tech package lured millennial Katie Lazzara, 26, to purchase a 2012 Ford Escape. While her parents bought her a car at 16, the Escape was her first adult car purchase, and its Microsoft Sync system for phone and other tech accessories stood out.

She missed the tech recently when she rented a car that lacked Bluetooth for her phone.

“I usually listen to music on my phone, and had to settle for the radio because it didn’t have Bluetooth,” she said. “My car isn’t even a nice model, but it has Bluetooth.”