Op-Ed: Is the Urbanisation of Young Adults Reducing their Driving?

Young people texting while wlking - no cars


Between 2001 and 2011 young adults (aged 25–34) in England moved towards denser urban areas.

In 2011 fewer young adults drove to work and more of them used public transport than in 2001.

Planning policies that encouraged higher density urban development facilitated those changes.


In recent decades, in many developed countries, licence-holding, car ownership and driving, amongst young adults have declined. One of the explanations advanced for these declines is the urbanisation of young adults, their growing concentration in the denser areas of larger cities.

This study analyses the changing spatial patterns and travel behaviour of young adults over time using a complete national dataset for England between 2001 and 2011. It uses a fractional response model to analyse the changing relationship between the proportion of young adults driving to work, and using public transport to get to work, and population density and settlement size.

It finds that urbanisation contributed to less driving and more public transport use amongst young adults aged 16–34. These changes followed a change in national planning policy which encouraged higher density development in urban areas. These policies caused a re-urbanisation of the population as a whole, with the strongest trends amongst young adults.

The re-urbanisation of the population was accompanied by a widening of the differentials in travel behaviour between those in the densest areas and the largest settlements (who drove less) and the rest.

These findings cast new light on the controversy over ‘residential self-selection’. They suggest that a change in planning policy probably caused a modest national fall in driving. Residential self-selection, which is often considered a barrier to such policies, facilitated those outcomes.


In recent decades, in many developed countries, licence-holding, car ownership and driving, amongst young adults have declined. A growing body of literature has sought to explain these trends, with respect to a range of economic, social and other causal factors (Delbosc and Currie, 2013Aretun and Nordbakke, 2014IFMO, 2013).

A recent study commissioned by the UK Department of Transport conducted a comprehensive review of the international literature and analysed several UK datasets in order to explain the changing travel behaviour of young adults since the 1990s (Chatterjee et al., 2018). One element of that study analysed evidence on the changing spatial patterns of young adults, particularly their ‘re-urbanisation’ (a shift towards the denser areas of larger cities and towns) in recent years. This article draws on that research.

Studies of re-urbanisation have generally found that much of the population growth in larger settlements has come from young adults (Rérat, 2016Moos, 2014). A few studies have suggested that their growing concentration in larger settlements, particularly their inner districts, has contributed to their fall in licence-holding (Delbosc and Currie, 2013), car ownership and driving (Oakil et al., 2016Chen et al., 2014).

This study uses census data covering the population of England to compare where young adults lived in 2001 and 2011 and their use of the car for travel to work, relating those changes to settlement size and residential density. It is the first study to date that has analysed those relationships using national datasets.

The relationship between re-urbanisation and travel behaviour is controversial. Advocates of ‘smart growth’ (e.g. Litman, 2016) cite reductions in traffic and increases in active travel as two of several reasons for spatial planning policies that increase the density of development in urban areas. Others have argued that such policies force reluctant people (particularly young adults) to move towards inner urban areas because of a lack of new housing elsewhere (Bolick, 2000Evans and Unsworth, 2012).

The effectiveness of such planning policies in achieving their transport objectives depends partly upon the potentially confounding force of ‘residential self-selection’. The fact that people in denser urban areas drive less and use other modes more than people in less dense suburban or rural areas is uncontested. To what extent those neighbourhood differences cause changes in travel behaviour, and to what extent they simply attract people with different travel preferences has been the subject of many studies.

A consensus appears to suggest that a causal relationship does exist, notwithstanding the self-selection issue, although uncertainties around methodologies and data limitations remain (Cao et al., 2009). This study will provide some further evidence for that debate based on analysis of national data for England.

The next section reviews the international literature and the policy context in England where significant changes in planning policy were made in 2000 (England is the largest of the UK nations with 84% of its population; planning is a devolved power in the other nations of the UK, where policies differed).

Section 3 explains how the 2001 and 2011 Census data for England was analysed.

Section 4 shows the changes in the spatial distribution of young adults (aged 16–34) and the population as a whole, and their respective changes in commuting behaviour. It presents the results of regression modelling, examining the extent to which changes in the spatial distribution of young adults explain the changes in commuting behaviour. As the only travel questions in the Census ask about commuting,

Section 4 also draws on the UK National Travel Survey to provide some broader context to the analysis.

Section 5 discusses the implications of the findings for the population as a whole and for young adults and draws conclusions on the broader impacts of planning policy on travel behaviour.



The research reported in this paper was largely carried out as part of the ‘Young People’s Travel Behaviour’ project which was commissioned and funded by the UK Department for Transport. The authors wish to express their thanks to the research managers at the Department for Transport, Andrew Scott, Nick Jones and Catherine Davie, for their advice on the research; as well as their thanks to colleagues in the project team, Tim Schwanen (Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford) and Phil Goodwin (Centre for Transport & Society, UWE Bristol) for helpful comments on the research. The views expressed are those of the authors alone.

 ** Full text at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0965856418305159

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About the authors:

Steve MeliaSteve Melia is a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England.  His research concerns the relationship between transport and the built environment, with a particular focus on traffic removal (see www.trafficremoval.uk) and alternatives to car-based development.  His book Urban Transport Without the Hot Air (UIT Cambridge, 2015) aimed to expose popular myths in transport planning and propose sustainable solutions.  Steve advised the UK Departments of Transport and of Communities and Local Government on transport aspects of the Eco-towns programme in 2008/9 and has more recently given evidence to the London Assembly Transport Committee and Cambridgeshire County Council about the future transport planning of London and Cambridge.  Before starting an academic career, he was a parliamentary candidate, Community Development Manager and freelance journalist. A selection of his writing for Local Transport Today and other professional publications is on: www.stevemelia.co.uk

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Kiron ChatterjeeKiron Chatterjee is Associate Professor in Travel Behaviour at the Centre for Transport & Society at UWE Bristol. His research seeks understanding of the way in which people travel and how this is influenced by the transport system and social, economic and technological change. He has a particular interest in using longitudinal data to understand changing travel behaviour over the life course and has pioneered the use of biographical data collection methods. Current research is investigating how commuting influences personal wellbeing, reasons for the declining car use of young adults, how cycling can be facilitated in later life and the design and evaluation of sustainable transport interventions.

About the editor

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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