Leadership   //   December 22, 2022  ■  5 min read

How Gen Z is driving the sustainable commuting movement

Has your commuting method – if you still go into the office – evolved since the pandemic?

As society lurched from the coronavirus crisis to the climate emergency, the heat was turned up on employers and employees to be more eco-conscious. And new research suggests that the youngest generation in the global workforce, Gen Z, is doing the most to lead a sustainable commuting movement. 

The study, unveiled in late November by e-bike engineers Swytch Technology, found that 37% of Gen Zers in the U.K. now walk or cycle to work. Further, 43% of the same cohort said they would change to an electric-powered mode of transport in the next few years because fossil fuels damage the environment. 

Admittedly, the organization behind the study had an obvious agenda – and it is worth noting that the sample size was 2,003, of which only 210 were Gen Zers – but sustainable commuting does appear to have gathered momentum recently. 

Indeed, the U.K. government heralded an “active travel renaissance” during the coronavirus crisis, when lockdowns minimized road traffic. Official research from July showed that due to the pandemic fallout, coupled with public-transport challenges, cycling rates, in general, had been boosted by 46%, while one million more U.K. residents had started walking for leisure.

And a 2021 study, led by the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit, calculated the extent to which “active travel” – cycling, e-biking, and walking – could help combat the climate crisis. The researchers estimated that turning to active transport “could save as much as a quarter of personal carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from transport.”

Dr. Christian Brand, the lead researcher and associate professor in Transport Energy and Environment at the University of Oxford, said: “We found that those who switch just one trip per day from car driving to cycling reduce their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes over a year, representing a substantial share of average-per- capita CO2 emissions.”

He added that if just 10% of the population switched travel behavior, the emissions savings would be around 4% of lifecycle CO2 emissions from all car travel.

Rising commuting costs

Oliver Montague, CEO and co-founder of Swytch Technology, said it was not only the cost to the planet causing Gen Zers to use active travel for work trips. “Our research indicates 28% of Gen Z across the U.K. are spending more than 20% of their monthly salaries on commuting alone,” he said.

It’s a similar picture in the U.S., Montague noted, citing a recent study from Axios that found commuting costs had risen between 31% and 49% in the country’s five largest cities since 2021. And Pittsburgh topped the rankings with a 60% annual increase.

“Although people are very focused on being sustainable, the cost-of-living crisis means that for a vast majority – especially younger generations – reducing costs is the main motivation [for active commuting],” added Montague.

Mobilityways is a U.K.-based software company that aims to make zero-carbon commuting a reality by providing a platform for organizations to track emissions, identify sustainable travel options, and engage workforces. Founder and chairman Ali Clabburn said that with smarter planning, 95% of commuters could share a lift to work with a colleague. He added: “Gen Zers are lower-carbon commuters, as shown by the ever-increasing average age that people are passing their driving test and buying cars.” 

Dr. Corey Seemiller, professor of leadership studies at Wright State University in Ohio, and a Gen Z researcher, author and speaker, also spotted this trend. She pointed out that youngsters in the U.S. were in no rush to learn to drive. “Reports show Gen Zers are getting driver’s licenses later or not at all, and many don’t own cars. So they need alternative [modes of transport] to commute.”

Echoing Montague, Dr. Seemiller agreed that the expense of owning and running a car was prohibitive for many workers at the start of their careers. “The cost of gas and parking, along with car payments, insurance, and vehicle repairs, makes driving an expensive option for some,” she said.

Eco-conscious organizations

There is, however, an opportunity for employers to develop their green credentials and attract and retain Gen Z talent by subsidizing sustainable commuting. Consider that a BUPA study from late 2021 found that 64% of 18 to 22 years olds in the U.K. thought it was important for their employers to act sustainably. And more than half said they would resign if they did not do so. 

Clabburn of Mobilityways said there was a growing demand for sustainable commuting, but many electric solutions might be hard to justify financially for younger workers. Therefore, it would be a win-win for employers and employees if work policies offered eco-friendly travel options. “When we asked our team who would lie to e-scooter to the office if they were legal and safe, every hand went up,” he added.

But are Gen Zers truly leading the sustainable commuting movement, or is it more to do with cutting costs during this period of economic uncertainty? Dr. Seemiller argued that the combination of factors would accelerate the drive to eco-friendlier transport solutions. 

“From our research, we have found, globally, that this generation has a strong commitment to saving the planet and significant concerns about money.” Therefore, it is logical, she said, to believe that this generation is “poised to take the lead” on this type of endeavor.

“This is a generation willing to do what it takes to save the planet,” Dr. Seemiller stressed. “If sustainable commuting is affordable and accessible to them, it makes sense that this would be just one more thing young people could do to contribute [to the cause],” she added.

Individual decisions for collective impact

Whether or not Gen Zers have opted to use active travel methods to commute because of financial worries was a moot point, said Florida resident Farrell Calabrese, purpose and sustainability leader at professional services firm Crowe LLP. That they – or workers of any age – were being mindful of how much they were using cars should be applauded as it was beneficial to their personal well-being and also lessens the impact they have on the environment. Over time, these actions have the potential to influence the behaviors of friends, family, and colleagues, she posited. 

“I believe that individual purpose fuels what a sustainable future looks like,” said Calabrese. “If you are living a sustainable lifestyle, that trickles out to the people around you.” 

Calabrese added that a culture of sustainability starts with personal choices and is excited that organizations are laying the foundations. “At Crowe, we are trying to infuse a sense of purpose and belonging across our culture because by bringing awareness to our individual decisions, we can instill change on a massive scale with our collective impact.”