Metro Vancouver needs to keep up with its Millennials

In 2007, I finished a study on the travel patterns of youth and young adults in Vancouver and Surrey that showed the constraints they faced in relying upon transit, and their commitment to continue using it as a sustainable transportation alternative. As a Masters thesis, the study involved just 21 participants and attracted little attention, but it was one of the first signs of a worldwide trend in transportation choice.

While young people have historically shown higher rates of walking, cycling, and public transit use in cities across Canada, transit authorities have typically ignored the travel patterns and needs of those under the age of 25. Teenagers do not vote in elections and young adults often have low rates of voting, so politicians tend to discount their views. It is assumed that as young adults begin to earn higher incomes and become more settled, they will buy homes and cars. But in fact, those 21 kids I spoke to in 2007, and their Millennial peers, have ushered in new lifestyle choices that have perplexed older generations and raised serious questions about the economy, transportation, and community planning.

In 2012, the Atlantic called Millennials “the cheapest generation” when it reported on the plummeting car sales to the 21- to 34-year-old age group. In the US, this group bought only 27% of all cars sold in the country in 2010, compared to 38% in 1985. Even among car owners, the number of vehicle miles travelled by this age group fell by 28% from 1998 to 2008. Just last month, Macleans reported that Canadian car sales were booming — among Boomers, who accounted for nearly 40% of car sales. Even “transforming vehicles into giant smartphones” is unlikely to appeal to the Millennials, now approaching their early 30s, who often opt to go car-free or use public transit and car sharing and on-demand alternatives.


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Studies around the world echo these findings: in Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Japan, young people are less interested in driving. In Germany, the percentage of 18- to 29-year-old car owners who drove at least five days a week dropped from 62 to 47 percent from 1997 to 2007, while the share of those taking transit at least once a week increased from 25 to 40 percent.

What is driving this shift? Economists say it’s the dismal job prospects and earnings of young adults, coupled with the need to repay crippling educational loans. That theory suggests that young people would love to buy cars and houses, but just can’t afford them. Or has the Great Recession, as it is termed in the US, caused youth to value experiences more than possessions? Sociologists and journalists dwell on the growth of social media and its possible replacement of some trips to visit friends. Real estate professionals have seen young people opt for pedestrian-friendly inner city neighbourhoods with car sharing, transit, and cycling options. In other countries, urban policies such as increasing bike lanes, providing real-time transit information, and charging higher parking costs in urban areas may be playing a role. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether Millennial patterns will remain the same ten years from now.

Here’s what we do know: there have been major shifts in demographics: In Canada there are more single-person households, more couples without children (including same-sex couples), and more young people living with their peers. In 2011, the National Household Survey showed a higher percentage of single-person households than couples with children for the first time ever. Statistics Canada reported that between 2001 and 2011, the proportion of one-person households increased from 25.7% to 27.6% of all households, continuing an upward trend that has existed for many decades. Young adults are marrying later, if at all. These fundamental shifts from the two-adult two-child household, that stalwart household formation of the postwar era that drove the construction of arterials and highways, indicate the need to think differently about the way we plan transportation and housing in our cities and regions.

Transportation planning is already undergoing a seismic shift. In many cities and regions around the world, traffic congestion, economic costs, and sustainability concerns are driving a change from the predict-and-provide approach to a more balanced approach integrating land use, infrastructural, and behavioural techniques. Instead of calculating how many people are going to be driving and building infrastructure to support the trend, transportation planners are now trying to influence demand to try and make better use of existing infrastructure. For example, encouraging flexible work hours to decrease peak-hour demand on roads and transit, supporting employee transit passes, and coordinating transportation and land use planning so that people can travel shorter distances by walking, and cycling. The Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council is taking this approach by supporting the Frequent Transit Network, the development of more bike lanes, and increasing local bus services. This will put more people within walking distance of reliable, sustainable transportation options, and contribute to a decrease in congestion. In countries like Norway, improving public transit options, raising taxes on car ownership and fuel, and introducing road tolls are considered to have had a major impact on travel behaviour: by 2012 just 67 percent of the population had a driver’s license—compared to 80 percent in 1992.

Why place so much emphasis on the Millennials? Actually, young people aren’t the only ones driving the demand for sustainable urban lifestyle choices. Baby boomers are downsizing, choosing high-rise or townhouse options in inner cities rather than holding on to their two-storey houses in the suburbs. For some, going from two cars to one (or even none) can be a revelation. Recent immigrants are driving public transit demand, as well as the trend towards smaller and more affordable housing options. In some cities and regions, responding to these trends is going to mean reinvesting in services such as public transit, schools, and community centres in core neighbourhoods that may have seen years of decreasing demand. For larger cities like Vancouver or Toronto, it means coping with increased demands on services that may already be stretched to capacity. It is going to mean introducing more complete communities, with housing and transportation options more suited to today’s demographics, across cities and regions–not just in city centres.

Strategic, long-term approaches that support a variety of transportation choices are necessary for cities to cope with the increased demand for pedestrian- and transit-oriented neighbourhoods, and that means stable funding for transportation and affordable housing—two things Canadian cities lack. All three levels of government need to collaborate to support the shift towards more compact, sustainable cities.



Ren Thomas has a Ph.D. in planning. She is an urban research and planning consultant; visit her website at