Monday, May 27, 2013

Millennials + ? = > Transit Ridership

A recent article in the New York Times addresses the issue of ‘millennials’ (teenagers and the twenty-somethings) and their apparent lack of interest in driving to the point of, collectively, impacting the nation’s driving rates. The article cites the newly printed U.S. PIRG report which purports, ‘For six decades, Americans have tended to drive more every year. But in the middle of the last decade, the number of miles driven – both over all and per capita – began to drop’. The article brushes aside the assertion that it is simply the cause (or effect) of the recession stating, ‘the changes preceded the recent recession and appeared to be part of a structural shift that is largely rooted in changing demographics, especially the rise of so-called millennials’.  This is a big claim and to buttress the argument, a University of Michigan study is cited which hypothesizes that, ‘access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people’. This is postulating that our youth are driving less because, in essence, they don’t need to drive to visit friends or hang out – they hang out online.  Which I guess means one of two things: their computers have rendered them too blissed out and indifferent to care or they are sufficiently connected to the nearly real, virtual, and online friends that driving to see them is unimportant or unnecessary.

The NYT article follows two protagonists, a 29 year old and a 42 year old in Charlotte, NC noting that their use of technology (computers and smartphones) and the remarkably successful Charlotte light rail line (the line reached its 7-10 year projected ridership of 12,000 in the first month and half of christening) have won them over to public transit.

The article does offer counter points to the legitimacy of the U.S. PIRG report with Robert W. Poole Jr. of the Reason Foundation calling it ‘exaggerated’ and Kenneth Orski, a transportation consultant, reasoning that, ‘When twenty-somethings get older and start having kids, they move to the more affordable suburbs in search of more space and better schools — and start driving’. These both maybe true but the gist of the PIRG report may be true as well.

While I tend to agree that sampling young, predominantly single users who have just come out of a poor economy is too selective or narrow, it still might be acknowledging a trend. But, trends change. I also agree with Orski’s assessment that many of these current transit users will grow to find they ‘need’ a car for one reason or another in the future. However, that may be beside the point too. 

Missing from the article is the straight acknowledgment that much of this transit infrastructure is very new. Many of the light rail lines and extensions opened in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, meaning these transit options were available to them at the same time they would have been looking to get their licenses. Or it could be that we are seeing this transit alternative finally bearing the fruit it has always promised. One possible externality of having more transit (particularly, light rail) is the simple truth that there is now a generation that is used to it, knows it, and is not intimidated by it. Light rail, bus and bikes are all is a viable form of transportation to this generation where they were not necessarily viable to the previous generations. Will the millennials continue to impress with their high transit use? Only time will tell.

Thanks to Sravya - for editorial direction. 

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