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Stalled On The Road To Adulthood? Analyzing the Nature of Recent Travel Changes for Young Adults in America, 1995 to 2009


Young people in the 2000s traveled fewer miles, owned fewer vehicles, and were less likely to hold a driver’s license than young people in the 1990s. Scholars, policymakers, and journalists proffered a host of possible explanations for this trend: attitudes and preferences about travel fundamentally changed due in part to the increased availability of communication technologies; economic conditions limited activities (including employment) and constrained travel options; young adults became less likely to attain adult roles like marriage and child-birth; young people lead a back-to-the-city movement where the utility of non-automobiles modes improved; and/or racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to drive and the population became more diverse. Whichever of these explanations is the principal cause, perhaps the American love affair with the car was over.

I assess the evidence for these hypotheses using data from the 1995, 2001, and 2009 national travel surveys in the United States. I identify four distinct traveler types using latent profile analysis of travel patterns over a single day and an extended period. These types—Drivers, Long-distance Trekkers, Multimodals, and Car-less—serve as the dependent variable in the subsequent analysis, where I evaluate changes in the prevalence of each type over time for specific subgroups and use multinomial logistic regression to identify the independent relationship between traveler type and economic resources, adult roles, residential location, and race/ethnicity.

I find that economic constraints, role deferment, and racial/ethnic compositional changes in the population primarily explain the travel trends during this period. The evidence in support of preferences and residential location explanations was substantially more limited. The concluding chapter contextualizes these findings, arguing that a large and growing share of young adults suffer from transportation disadvantage. The most important take-away from this work is that the decline in driving by young people in the 2000’s deserves our attention—not as an unmitigated success story, but as an early indication of a problem.

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