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One of the truly bright spots for public transit has been the emergence of millennials, those born between 1982 and 2003. As numerous studies have shown, driving rates are down for millennials compared to earlier generations and they are showing a greater propensity for urban living. Saving money, convenience, exercise and lifestyle choice are major reasons young people are turning away from cars toward transit. Public transit providers should position themselves to take advantage of this emerging trend. Questions remain as to whether millennials' attitudes represents a long term trend or just the consequence of a weak economic recovery that will change as they age, start families and pay off their student loans, though some studies suggest that their travel behavior may well persist.
One factor is that they are more likely to be highly tech saavy then their parents. This trend toward transit use is linked in part to the availability of smart phone apps that allow transit users more flexible and spontaneous options, reducing some of the advantages of automobile use. Millennials find public transit especially convenient since it allows opportunities to work or socialize on digital media while travelling. Another factor is that they appear to be far more interested in living in cities than earlier generations, which has broad implications for businesses that locate in urban areas.
A recent study by the APTA found that millennials, especially those entering the working world with accumulated student debt, are interested in saving money, making time for exercise and social activities, and being part of a community. They are also more concerned about environmental issues and using new technology. This six city survey of 18 to 24 year olds found that they would like to see more reliable public transit systems that offer real-time information about route choices, local amenities, and opportunities to stay connected. They would also like the option to use their smartphones for payment. Public transit is appealing to millennials because it is considered affordable and better for the environment, and offers opportunities for being part of a community. Survey respondents indicated that bicycling, riding buses and streetcars, and walking were more preferred modes than driving, though unsurprisingly actual transit use trailed car use (as a driver or passenger). About a quarter of respondents stated they used ride-sharing services at least a few times a week. The key here is that millennials are more likely to view public transit as part of a multimodal lifestyle that can include public transit.
The APTA study found nearly 70 percent of those aged 18 to 34 use multiple modes of travel each week, and that public transit ranks highest. This trend is linked in part to the availability of smartphone apps that allow transit users more flexible and spontaneous options, reducing some of the advantages of automobile use. Nearly half say they have tried to replace driving with other alternatives compared to a third of older individuals. There is emerging evidence this is not just a fad. A web based survey conducted by the Transit Center, "Who’s On Board: The 2014 Mobility Attitudes Survey," sought to better understand the underlying attitudes that shape travel behavior. It found that employed persons and students are both more likely to use transit, as are ethnic minorities. Having children or not does not seem to be much of a factor, which the authors suggest may open possibilities to extend transit into traditional family neighborhoods that are typically not seen as amenable to transit. Younger parents are more likely to take transit than older parents regardless of income, which suggests that these attitudes may persist for some time.
There is a growing trend among younger people toward living in urban areas, even those who are parents of young children. While the APTA survey found that transportation and pedestrian amenities were a strong attraction for those without children, young parents also found the availability of public transit a reason to live in urban areas. Whether these trends continue as families age remains to be seen but this is already a significant shift from earlier generations that public transit can capitalize on. Another trend for transit planners to be aware of is the presence of Millennial “hot spots” or concentration of those less likely to drive and more likely to use ride-sharing services or public transit. Residents of these areas want to feel more connected to their community. Stressing the health, environmental, and affordability advantages of public transit should be especially appealing to these potential customers.
A study by the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America found that most Millennials prefer living where they have a variety of transportation options. A majority reported that they could not afford to live in areas without public transportation and nearly all supported investing in public transportation as a way to create jobs and improve the economy. One reason millennials find urban areas attractive is because they offer more options for multimodal travel. Another report by Mobility Lab found that millennials who grew up automobile friendly circumstances have decidedly rejected cars in favor of public transit and may continue to do so. By contrast, Baby Boomers whose early years were spent in much more transit friendly environments have grown accustomed to the suburban lifestyle and are unlikely to change at least until they reach an age where they can no longer drive. Both situations offer challenges but also opportunities for transit providers. One key finding in this report was that parents are no less likely to use transit than non-parents which suggests that changing attitudes toward transit may remain even as Millennials grow older and start raising their own families.
Despite all the talk of smartphone technology, the Transit Center study found that that staying connected to the internet is not a strong predictor of greater transit use. Instead, the most important reasons that young people are attracted to transit is reliability and speed and the most critical factors in increasing transit use particularly among Millennials relate to the communities where they live. Many, the study finds, would rather live in higher density mixed use neighborhoods. Since shorter work commutes are associated with greater transit use, one way to increase transit patronage is to locate jobs and housing closer together, as well as encouraging a better mix of housing, shops and businesses, all things that also make transit more viable. This is backed up by findings that workers who receive transit benefits from their employers are much more likely to commute by transit than those who do not. Again, having children seem to be much less of a factor. The change in attitudes may truly be generational rather than merely due to temporary economic or social circumstances. The authors conclude that transit providers could increase ridership by focusing on improving service for those in their 30s and 40s who would prefer taking transit but find it inconvenient or the service inadequate. 
Businesses are also finding that urban living is a critical factor in recruiting new employees. A recent report by the Ohio PIRG Education Fund urged states to expand transportation spending in order to attract and keep young workers. Companies are relocating from suburban car-centric office parks to urban locations accessible to transit to court younger workers who prefer living in urban areas. Traditional office parks are investing in new housing, restaurants, pedestrian amenities, and upgrading bus and shuttle services to meet changing lifestyles. Plans to invest in new rail lines to attract businesses are taking shape in areas such as Northern Virginia, Denver and Phoenix. Even North Carolina’s famous Research Triangle is planning a light rail line to connect to local college campuses. Maryland is looking for ways to better connect existing Metro lines to residential locations and well as promoting more mixed use office parks. One executive noted that “I can’t compete unless they can get to us without driving.”
Barriers and Opportunities
Among the identified barriers to transit use for Millennials are accessibility, convenience, travel time and lack of connection to other modes. Some of these concerns can be addressed through improved messaging systems, greater information access, and “experience planning.” The APTA recommends increasing transit use by installing smartphone charging stations, and using smartphones for fare collection, and improving pedestrian access to transit facilities. Offering continuous wi-fi connections to transit riders was another suggestion to come out of their study. Providing riders with more reliable and user-friendly digital tools with real-time information for trip planning, including suggestions related to travel options based on weather conditions, costs, opportunities for alternative travel (bicycling, ride-sharing, walking, etc.) as well as creating apps that provide information on local areas such as history, food or upcoming events, could greatly assist public transit operators to speak to the needs and lifestyles of millennials.
American Public Transit Association, "Millenials and Mobility: Understanding the Millenial Mind Set," http://www.apta.com/resources/reportsandpublications/Documents/APTA-Millennials-and-Mobility.pdf
- With evidence suggesting that driving rates are down for the "Millennial Generation," those born between 1982 and 2003, this report looks at the mindsets behind this trend to understand the implication for public transportation in the United States, using in-depth interviews and a survey of 1,000 people in six cities attractive to Millennials.
Transit Center, Who’s On Board: The 2014 Mobility Attitudes Survey, http://transitcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/WhosOnBoard2014-ForWeb.pdf
- This web-based study prepared for the Transit Center examines differences in attitude and behavior among the US population with respect to public transportation and neighborhood choice in cities with well-developed transit systems and others with less developed transit systems.
- Hadley Malcolm, "Millennials prefer cities with good public transit," USA Today, http://usat.ly/1hq7N3J
- Katherine Shaver and Bill Turque, "Suburbs such as Montgomery County Rethink Transit to Court Millennials," The Washington Post, March 29, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/yearning-for-car-averse-millennials-suburbs-turn-to-transit/2015/03/29/cb916cd8-d259-11e4-8fce-3941fc548f1c_story.html
- Mantill Williams, “Millenial Generation Desires Multi-Modal Transportation System,” Transit News, October 1, 2013. http://www.apta.com/mediacenter/pressreleases/2013/Pages/131001_Millennials.aspx
- Benet J. Wilson, “Millennials and Money: Give Us More Transit Options,” April 14, 2015 http://businessjournalism.org/2015/04/millennials-and-money-give-us-more-transit-options/
- American Public Transit Association, "Millenials and Mobility: Understanding the Millenial Mind Set," http://www.apta.com/resources/reportsandpublications/Documents/APTA-Millennials-and-Mobility.pdf
- Peter Varga, “Millennials shifting commuter trends: Column,” May 4, 2014. http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/05/04/peter-varga-millennials-transportation/8577831/
- Paul Mackie, “Millennials Sticking With Transit, Boomers Sticking With Cars.” Mobility Lab, September 18, 2014. http://mobilitylab.org/2014/09/18/millennials-sticking-with-transit-boomers-sticking-with-cars/
- Transit Center, Who’s On Board: The 2014 Mobility Attitudes Survey. http://transitcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/WhosOnBoard2014-ForWeb.pdf