Sustainable transport: a cultural or generational shift?

Promoting sustainable transport is a decades old endeavour. Catch public transport, ride your bike, walk to work. silhouetted bikesWe’ve heard it before. Now, studies reveal that a shift away from driving is occurring. But this shift may not be due to the active campaigning for the greening of transport. It may be generational and it may be cultural.

A generational shift

According to National Geographic, young people are driving less than teens did a generation ago and they delaying getting their driver’s licences. The reasons behind this trend are unclear. In the United States, the percentage of 19-year-olds with driver’s licences fell from 87% to 70% between 1983 and 2010. For 17-year-olds, the fall was even more dramatic, from 69% in 1983 to 46% by 2010. Countries such as Canada, South Korea, Germany, and Japan are also seeing similar shifts in the demographics of licenced drivers.

Some researchers suggest that this is because younger people socialise online regularly. Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) have noted that the percentage of young drivers is inversely related to the proportion of internet users. They theorise that ‘virtual contact’ reduces the need to travel for face-to-face interactions. Other researchers suggest that in the current economic climate, with fuel prices and insurance premiums soaring, that young people simply cannot afford to drive.

UMTRI suggests that only 9% of US students interviewed cited the environment as a reason for not getting their licences, whereas 37% simply stated they were too busy to sit the test or undertake the hours required. Whatever the explanation, new attitudes on mobility already are beginning to change transport trends.

Cultural differences

UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences researcher Dr Dorina Pojani says that there are also stark cultural differences in attitudes to public transport.

Commuters in Anglo and Nordic countries including the United States, the Netherlands and Australia, and Asian nations such as China and India were interviewed in an attempt to unpick the symbolism associated with public transport uptake.

“On average, professional, educated households in Anglo and Nordic countries are wealthier, so one would expect that they would be more attached to cars and more negative toward public transport,” she said.

“But what we found is that they were actually more indifferent.

“By contrast, professionals in China and India — who haven't experienced car ownership en masse for that long — have already developed very strong and negative attitudes toward public transport.

Dr Pojani believes that biases toward public transport run deep, and may help foster, or hinder, support for public transport.

“For nearly all of the history of public transit, this field has been dominated by engineers who think they can improve public transport uptake by building more infrastructure or making it run faster.

“But, in reality, this isn’t the full picture. Transport modes like buses, cars and bikes all have strong symbolic significance attached to them and that using or shunning a particular mode is a way to express our social status and identity.

“Even if we aren't conscious of it, we may make the decision to ride a bus, not based on how much it costs or whether or takes us where we want to go, but based on how we want to be seen by others.

“In some countries, you may be afraid of appearing to be poor, or simply don’t want to associate with those who typically ride the bus.”

The research suggests that changing these attitudes is critical to develop well-used, sustainable public transport systems across the globe.

If you have to drive, drive green 

However, if you are on of those who can’t give up your car, according to the group, Switch your thinking, there are number of ways you can employ ‘green driving techniques’:

  • Regularly check your tyre pressure. Under-inflated tyres can increase fuel consumption by 3% and take 10,000 kilometres off the tyre’s life.
  • Service your car regularly. A well-tuned car can use 15% less fuel.
  • Slow down. Driving at 90 kilometres per hour uses 25% less fuel than travelling at 110 kilometres per hour.
  • Don’t idle. If you are stopping for more than ten seconds, turn your car off.
  • Drive smoothly. Stopping and starting uses more fuel.
  • Open your window rather than using your air conditioner when travelling at under 70 kilometres per hour. Air conditioning can increase fuel consumption by 10%. At speeds above this, the drag caused by having your window down will use more fuel than the air conditioning.
  • Screw on your fuel cap firmly to avoid evaporation.
  • Travel light. Don’t use your car to store heavy equipment for long periods of time — an extra 50 kilograms of weight increases fuel consumption by 2%
  • Remove roof racks and anything fixed to the outside of your car when they are not in use to minimise wind resistance.


Jarvis, D. (2019) ‘To bus or not to bus? How culture affects public transport use’, UQ News, 8 May,

Lavelle, M. ( 2013) ‘U.S. Teenagers are driving much less: 4 theories about why’, National Geographic, 18 December,

Lavelle, M. (n.d.) ‘What innovation should shape transportation in the future?’ National Geographic,

Switch your thinking (n.d.) ‘Transport’, Switch your thinking,

University of Michigan (2012), Percentage of teen drivers continues to drop’, Michigan News, 23 July