Throughout the 20th century, the automobile was an American icon, a symbol of freedom and mobility. It gave people choices they never had before.
The digital age has only expanded the choices. No generation has embraced the freedom to choose more than the Millennials — those born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s.
Millennials aren't just insisting on the right to choose where to go — but how to get there, too. They're opting for the mode of transport that allows them to accomplish what they want along the way — whether it’s socializing with friends, being environmentally responsible, or having the freedom to work or play en route.
We should welcome this trend. It improves the environment, saves money and enhances commuters' quality of life. Communities will have to accommodate this demand for choice or risk losing Millennials to places that do.
The average number of miles driven by Americans has been declining for years. Meanwhile, the share of people in their teens, 20s and 30s who have decided they can do without a car is increasing.
Three-quarters of American 17-year-olds were licensed to drive in 1978. By 2008, it was just 49 percent, according to a 2012 story in USA Today. Seventy percent of Millennials report regularly utilizing multiple alternatives to the car, including public transportation.
What explains this shift? It starts with Millennials’ worldview. More than other generations, they “appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning,” according to Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker and Emily Esfahani Smith of the Hoover Institution.
Millennials act on that desire for meaning — to “make a difference” — even when deciding how to get from place to place. To explain their preference for a multi-modal lifestyle undergirded by public transportation, they cite ease of use, lower environmental impact and the sense of community it fosters.
Indeed, a recent University of Minnesota study found that living closer to light rail lines is associated with a higher degree of life satisfaction.
The same impulse compels Millennials to make cities their homes. Only 14 percent live in rural areas, compared with 36 percent of their grandparents at a similar age, according to the Pew Research Center. One-third of Millennials reside in central city areas, where public transit options tend to be robust.
Cities that embrace this trend and develop the infrastructure to support it will flourish.
In 2013, Americans took some 10.7 billion trips on public transportation — the highest figure in 57 years, according to the American Public Transportation Association. This growth has been aided by technology. Many public transit systems offer online and smartphone apps to let riders know when the next bus or train will arrive, thereby reducing wait times. One-quarter of Millennials cite transportation apps as one reason they’re less dependent on cars.
Forty percent of Millennials point to the ability to multitask on the bus or subway — sending email, playing games, or surfing the web — as a reason they favor public transit, according to APTA.
Millennials also find public transit’s environmental benefits attractive. Shifting the daily commute from the car to a bus or train can reduce a household's carbon emissions by 10 percent.
Finally, public transportation can save money. American households spend about 16 percent of their income on transportation, the vast majority of which goes toward buying and maintaining cars. Frequent public transit users, on the other hand, save in excess of $9,000 a year, according to APTA.
Millennials have been strapped with student loan debt and a poor economy. Affordable transportation options may matter to them more than their elders.
Every generation sets a new trend, and Millennials are no exception. They have embraced multiple ways of getting around in a way previous generations never did.
The question is whether the next generation of leaders will roll out truly multi-modal transportation options. Millennials have already articulated their preference. It's up to elected officials to meet their expectations by investing more in public transit.
Peter Varga is chief executive officer of The Rapid in Grand Rapids and chair of the American Public Transportation Association.