Invest in transit, and riders will come

Attitudes toward public transit have been changing in the US for some time, but there’s been more evidence recently that the Millennials (previously known as “Gen Y”) continue to be a driving force of that change.

A new report from USPIRG compiles the research from a number of studies over the last decade, including one we highlighted on our blog a couple years ago. Younger Americans are driving less and using alternative transportation modes—like walking, biking, and public transportation—more than previous generations. Some reasons are temporary: the recession of 2008-2009 cause some people to resort to public transit due to cost, or not commuting at all because of unemployment. However, many of the reasons are due to cultural shifts that imply a change of values which might last longer: Millennials show an increased preference for urban living, they are more familiar with mobile devices which make transit more convenient to use, and are more likely to take actions to protect the environment, even though they’re less likely to label themselves “environmentalists”.

This has major implications, USPIRG argues, for the needs of transportation investment. The country must refocus its attention on providing quality public transit infrastructure, in order to capture the potential riders that are waiting for new capacity. This echoes an indication of the recent nationwide survey by TransitCenter, which found that topping the list of all requests by current and potential public transit riders was increased frequency and service hours. That survey also found a divergence between Millennials and other generations.

The takeaway here is that demographics are on the side of public transit. As younger Americans build long-term habits, and become a larger proportion of the American workforce, public transit ridership will increase. The question is will US governments—local, state, and federal—invest in order to service this increased demand, or will we continue to rely on the outdated metrics that have put American public transit in a state of disrepair?