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‘I’ll call an Uber or 911’: Why Gen Z doesn’t want to drive

Zoomers are shunning cars and driver’s licenses. Will it last?

(Illustration by Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; iStock)
7 min

When Madison Corr was 18 years old and in her first year of college, she started the process of getting a driver’s license. Corr, who was living in New York at the time, got an adult learner’s permit, did drug and alcohol training, put in 10 to 15 hours behind the wheel and attended driver’s ed classes.

But when it came time to schedule a road test to get her license, she simply … didn’t. “I just felt like I didn’t need it,” she said.

Now 24, she lives in Philadelphia and still doesn’t have a license. “My parents put a lot of pressure on me to get one,” she said. “But I haven’t needed one to this point. If there’s an emergency, I’ll call an Uber or 911.”

Gabe Balog, 23, waited to get his license until he was 20 and didn’t get a car until two years later. “I didn’t want my parents teaching me,” he said. But he also felt ambivalence toward America’s car-centric culture, only getting a car because his job as a peer mental health worker required one. “It would be so much better for everyone if public transport were just more accessible.”

Balog and Corr reflect a growing trend among Generation Z, loosely defined as people born between 1996 and 2012. Equipped with ride-sharing apps and social media, “zoomers,” as they are sometimes called, are getting their driver’s licenses at lower rates than their predecessors. Unlike previous generations, they don’t see cars as a ticket to freedom or a crucial life milestone. The question — for American drivers and for the planet — is whether that trend will last.

In 1997, 43 percent of 16-year-olds and 62 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. In 2020, those numbers had fallen to 25 percent and 45 percent. “Anecdotally, we’re hearing that younger people aren’t driving or getting their licenses as quickly as in the past,” said Mark Friedlander, the director of communications at the Insurance Information Institute.

The trend is most pronounced for teens, but even older members of Gen Z are lagging behind their millennial counterparts. In 1997, almost 90 percent of 20- to 25-year-olds had licenses; in 2020, it was only 80 percent.

Gen Zers point to many reasons they are turning their backs on cars: anxiety, finances, environmental concern. Many members of Gen Z say they haven’t gotten licensed because they’re afraid of getting into accidents or of driving itself. Madison Morgan, a 23-year-old from Kennewick, Wash., had multiple high school classmates die in driving accidents. Those memories loomed over her whenever she was behind the wheel.

“When I was learning with my parents, a lot of times I would end up crying because I was so stressed out,” she said. After failing the driving test twice, she decided to take a break until she felt more confident. She now lives in Seattle and takes public transportation or the occasional Uber or Lyft.

Others point to driving’s high cost. Car insurance prices have skyrocketed, increasing nearly 14 percent between 2022 and 2023. (The average American now spends about 3 percent of their yearly income on car insurance.) Used and new car prices have also soared in the past few years, thanks to a combination of supply chain disruptions and high inflation.

And members of Gen Z, according to one Pew poll, are more likely to talk about the need for climate action than members of previous generations.

Louisa Sholar, a 24-year-old graduate student at Georgetown University, has a license but has stayed car-free because of the high cost of insurance and the availability of public transit in Washington. “I’m in favor of having more public transport for environmental reasons,” she said. “I’m quite conscious of my footprint.”

E-scooters, e-bikes and ride-sharing also provide Gen Zers options that weren’t available to earlier generations. (Half of ride-sharing users are between the ages of 18 and 29, according to a poll from 2019.) And Gen Zers have the ability to do things online — hang out with friends, take classes, play games — that used to be available only in person.

“Their thumbs have become much more mobile than their legs,” said Ming Zhang, a professor of regional planning at the University of Texas at Austin.

Whether this shift will last depends on whether Gen Z is acting out of inherent preferences, or simply postponing key life milestones that often spur car purchases. Getting married, having children, or moving out of urban centers are all changes that encourage (or, depending on your view of the U.S. public transit system, force) people to drive more.

Those phases “are consistently getting later,” said Noreen McDonald, a professor of urban planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gen Zers are more likely to live at home for longer, more likely to pursue higher education and less likely to get married in their 20s.

Millennials went through a similar phase. Around a decade ago, many newspaper articles and research papers noted that the millennial generation — often defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 — were shunning cars. The trend was so pronounced that some researchers dubbed millennials the “go-nowhere” generation.

That shift reverberated on the nation’s roads and highways. The average number of vehicle miles driven by young people dropped 24 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to a report from the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. At the same time, vehicle miles traveled per person in the United States — which had been climbing for more than 50 years — began to plateau.

Researchers at the time didn’t know whether the trend would hold. “There was speculation at the time that millennials would ultimately drive as much as baby boomers” once they passed the same life stages, Zhang said.

But according to a study Zhang and his co-authors released last year, adult millennials continue to drive about 8 percent less every day than members of Generation X and baby boomers. As millennials have grown up, married and had kids, the distance they travel in cars has increased — but they haven’t fully closed the gap with previous generations.

It’s too early to tell if the same will be true for Generation Z. Its youngest members are only 10 years old, and the covid-19 pandemic probably has interrupted some driving plans of older Gen Zers. Researchers say that more study will be needed to evaluate whether Zoomers end up driving even less than millennials. “We just don’t know that much about Gen Z yet,” said Tony Dutzik, a senior policy analyst at Frontier Group.

But, he added, data has shown that U.S. car culture isn’t as strong as it once was. “Up through the baby boom generation, every generation drove more than the last,” Dutzik said. Forecasters expected that trend to continue, with driving continuing to skyrocket well into the 2030s. “But what we saw with millennials, I think very clearly, is that trend stopped,” Dutzik said.

If Gen Zers continue to eschew driving, it could have significant effects on the country’s carbon emissions. Transportation is the largest source of CO2 emissions in the United States. There are roughly 66 million members of Gen Z living in the United States. If each one drove just 10 percent less than the national average — that is, driving 972 miles less every year — that would save 25.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from spewing into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of more than six coal-fired power plants.

The big question now, according to Dutzik, is whether policymakers and city planners will help shift American society away from near-total reliance on cars. “You have a group of people signaling with their actions that they want something different from the transportation system,” he said. “They need more options to be able to live their lives the way they want to.”

John Muyskens contributed to this report.