Investing in Transit “Because Millennials” is a Bad Idea

I’m guilty of using this point when I want to win an argument. Millennials want options, especially in transportation.

If cities want to attract new talent, younger residents and diverse citizens, you need to invest in transit. Right? Well…

It’s not that cut and dry. The idea of investing in transit “because Millennials” is just plain stupid. It actually negates the whole idea of a good transportation system, ya know, one that works for everyone.

Case in point, the controversial, overpriced Milwaukee streetcar.

I am not a huge fan of the Milwaukee streetcar. I think it’s a big gamble funded with federal money and has no real need. This is not to mention that the streetcar has seen more than a few setbacks since starting construction, making it that much more pricey to Milwaukee residents. My parents who live in Milwaukee, are even less fond of it because it doesn’t help them at all. My dad especially. He’s the principal of an inner-city school and can’t really figure out why they’re not spending the money on something like education.

In a recent article on the streetcar system, Mayor Tom Barrett was quoted saying “The streetcar brings a lot of value,” Barrett said. “The Millennials want to move around the city with ease.”

First off, if political correctness has taught me anything it’s that adding “the” in front of any group of people is a sure way to get them to hate you.

Second, if you’re investing in a expensive streetcar system “because Millennials,” stop.

If you’re going to bank your transit system on a highly unemployed group of people who are loaded with debt and notorious for moving around, you’re probably not doing transit right.

The problem stems from the idea that cities need to progress and grow, ergo, they need a constant stream of people to fuel their development. If you as a mayor want to add some shiny new transit that is really slow just because you think it’s good for the “youngens,” then you ought to stop, re-evaluate and figure out your return on investment instead of pandering to a demographic.

Again, I’ll hop back to the Milwaukee streetcar. It’s a pretty small, pretty expensive piece of transit. And in a city like Milwaukee, where crime and poverty are abundant, it does little for mobility of the poor. But hey, Millennials!

Likewise, Detroit, a city essentially in ruin, is shelling out a ton of money for a streetcar. Why? I don’t know, it doesn’t really make me want to move to Detroit and I’m a 25 year old designer with no kids and I’m even wearing a plaid flannel shirt RIGHT NOW. How much more Millennial can I get?

I know it sounds like I’m hating on streetcars, I’m not. I’m hating on the idea that someone put an idea out there that streetcars=millennials=cool people=jobs=a better city. I don’t want my generation being a driving force in bad transit investments just because we’ll like them for a few years before we may end up in the suburbs anyway resulting in less people moving into the city to replace those that left.

Again, with the Green Line in The Twin Cities, am I the only one that thinks that eight breweries along a single transit line is a bit of a millennial-inspired bubble? This isn’t to say that the green line was built because of those breweries or that other things won’t build there in the future, but I think the notion of Green Line as recreation over transit is percolating.

Now, this isn’t to say that we should build roads “because cars” or we should do anything “because anything else.” Rather, this is aimed at the fad sweeping the nation that Millennials will save your city (which might be true) if you build them transit first. Honestly, I would value a strong sense of place over transit any day, but that might just be personal opinion.

Biking has seen a massive explosion not only with the young, but with older generations as well.  Bike lanes, painted or protected, are way, WAY, cheaper than a full transit system. Cities need to start small and add when it makes financial sense.

This absolutely ridiculous “quiz” showed up on my news feed asking how “Millennial” my transportation habits are. I scored (what I assume is good) a “forever young” telling me that:

You’re so Millennial, you must have been born in 1990! Millennials are increasingly choosing all sorts of options when deciding how they’ll get around town, and public transportation options are an important part of that mix. Whether you’re 18 or 99, your transportation habits are just like these tech focused, social media savvy Millennials. Put your earbuds in and ride!

Gee thanks! I’m glad that I could be boiled down into some Saved by the Bell watching caricature. AND I WAS BORN IN 1989 THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

I think the problem is that, like a lot of things in America, we’re polarizing millennials as pro-any-kind-of-transit. This means we’re being used to fuel unnecessary projects that cost a lot of money and may end up hurting the cities we live in.

To fix this, be an advocate of financial responsibility, productivity, and common sense. If a city wants to build a transit, great, but ask why, where, cost, and efficiency instead of letting it get masked behind “because Millennials.”

Cover photo from Brad Hammonds on Albumarium

19 thoughts on “Investing in Transit “Because Millennials” is a Bad Idea

  1. Dave Baur

    The sense of place is the huge element that anyone saying “transit because Millennials” is missing. To the extent that people, not just Millennials, are looking for more transportation options, it’s to get to and from pleasant and/or useful places without driving as a requirement. You’d better have great places to go if you’re going to link them with transit, and that transit needs to be reasonably competitive on travel time as well. It’s been discussed by lots of smarter people, but those of us who feel that transit is an important part of the toolkit for building a great city need to remember that transit for transit sake is not really an improvement on the auto centric system that got us here.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I get your point and agree with it. Millenials (sp?) are used over and over again as a media frame and then taken up in political talking type situations to prove a point. “Millenials love phones more than food. Millenials think differently about income. Millenials live with their mothers. Millenials will never grow up. Millenials walk sideways. Millenials pick their nose every seventeen seconds.” (or whatever)

    [Millenials trendpiece + a political agenda = thing that drives Matthias crazy]

    Anyway, just know that the streetcar or the Green Line (or whatever) has very little to do with Millenials per se. These projects are often about boomers or a whole slew of demographics that are far more complicated, and referring to Millenials is just a catchy and all-too-easy shorthand for a larger situation.

    (That said, Millenials do drive less, don’t they? Can’t we talk about them in a reductive way when it comes to Millenials driving less?)

    (Also, Richard Florida is who you want to blame.)

  3. Morgan Zehner

    Umm, I think that investing in millennials makes perfect sense. The capital investment decision is driven by the logic of making an upfront investment in an asset or activity that can then produce a stable annuity over time. Hopefully one with very little transaction costs. Attempting to attract millennials that will live in a city for the next 20 to 30 years seems like a great capital investment move. Schools, crime and other public services that are more operational in nature can then be financed through the increased revenue (property and sales taxes) that the millennials provide.

    And because of the federal government’s role in transportation finance, and less so schools and public safety, the strategy decisions are not the same anyway and can’t be compared like for like.

    1. brad

      The follow-up question is which “Forever Young” song did you start humming then: Bob Dylan? Rod Stewart? Alphaville? Jay-Z (Young Forever)? That’d probably identify your generation.

    1. Morgan Zehner

      I have heard this saying before but I am not sure how it is supported by evidence. To me, and lots of other people that analyse urban land, it appears that the best “places” (walkable, diverse businesses, high value, great reputation as places to visit) are also the places that made transit investments long ago.

      To me it appears that NYC, DC, SF are becoming better places at a faster rate than Mpls, Dallas, Denver etc. This might just be my perspective but I would like to be proved wrong.

      Also, increasing access to a place, especially for pedestrians, through transit seems like a good way for a government to invest in place. What are public sector investments in place that are an alternative to transit?

  4. Simon Dorf

    The problem isn’t so much targeting transit at Millenials, it’s targeting shiny baubles (like many streetcar proposals) at them. Millenial transit passengers will quickly figure out if a line is slow, circuitous, and unreliable, even if it is shiny. Given Millenials’ apparently greater use of transit information technology, they may figure it out quicker than most.

    Depending on the locations that a transit line serves, and the type of service it provides, a transit may attract a larger share of its passengers from a given demographic group. That could be seniors, students, financial industry workers etc. There’s nothing wrong with considering those groups’ needs in developing service, as long as the service is well-designed and effective.

  5. Alice2

    Streetcars are not about moving people fast. They support creation of a district that, once entered, can all be accessed by streetcar. Works with a district a little too big to walk, a district with little or no on-street parking, and a district with lots of things people want to access. Most downtowns qualify. If you drive the 1.5-2 miles from one destination to another, you will go at least as fast as the streetcar, but first you have to get your car out of whatever off-street facility it is in, and then on the other end, put your car into another off-street facility, adding a bunch of time to your trip. The total trip time for the streetcar is then much faster, much less hassle, and generally cheaper. No opinion on any specific streetcar project, don’t know Detroit or Milwaukee, just want to clarify streetcar function.

    1. Simon Dorf

      What you’re describing are Downtown circulators, sometimes called “last mile” service.They are a well known accepted of transit. New York, San Francisco, and Boston–strong transit downtowns–somehow get along without them, but you see them in Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other cities.

      Circulators don’t need to be streetcars, in most cities they are actually buses. Bus routes are much cheaper to set up, and can be changed much more easily if travel patterns shift. Buses have to drive in traffic, but at least they can maneuver around obstacles, unlike streetcars.

      1. Nathanael

        Buses, in practice, never maneuver around obstacles. I’ve watched buses snarl traffic due to NOT detouring around accident sites.

  6. Jaron McNamara

    “I think the problem is that, like a lot of things in America, we’re polarizing millennials as pro-any-kind-of-transit. This means we’re being used to fuel unnecessary projects that cost a lot of money and may end up hurting the cities we live in.”

    I really agree with this statement. Being a couple years shy of the millennial crowd myself I find myself a pro-transit type of person, I ride transit to work, shopping, etc. and strongly support improved routes and more service. BUT I’m not one who is attracted to shiny new sexy LRT/Streetcar/BRT as something I must have to survive. Case in point, I could’ve moved to an apartment on the new Green Line LRT or one on the Blue Line, but instead I opted to move to a place served only by several lowly local bus lines. Why? Because it would take way too darn tootin’ long for me to ride to work, or my friends, or other places I go from the potential LRT locations I considered. The place I’m in however has quick and direct access to work by bus, and is quite walkable with many retail and eatery choices nearby.

    I would like to see someone step up and say, Hey, it’s not groundbreaking, but instead of spending major $$$$ studying and building short streetcar lines willy-nilly all over the place let’s just work on simple improvements like improving frequency on the top 20 ridership bus routes, or adding some basic bus shelters and traffic queue jumps in high boarding areas. Let’s actually give two bits about the transit system as a whole, instead of just slapping down some money on four miles of it because that’s what the cool kids want.

    1. Nathanael

      If you can get an existing road lane repainted as a bus lane, go for it.

      Otherwise, it’s actually cheaper to build an exclusive streetcar lane than to *build* a bus lane. And you get far more riders.

  7. Jeramey Jannene

    I understand your millennials argument, but you seem to take an odd detour to unfairly bash the Milwaukee Streetcar and mix up a number of acts.

    Your dad wants the money for schools. That’s understandable, but isn’t it probably true of every federal project? It’s federal transportation money that can only be spent on a fixed rail system, and it’s already been paired down from $259 million (much of which went to buses and roads in the end after acts of Congress).

    Mayor Tom Barrett isn’t quoted. Developer Rick Barrett (no relation) is, and he’s trying to sell his project (The Couture).

    The system also isn’t yet under construction, and the article you reference is already talking about making the route longer (covering more people).

    Milwaukee does have plenty of poverty, a struggling public school system, and crime issues, but people are putting time and launching initiatives to address those issues. Will they solve them all overnight? No.

    Is the fact that those conditions exist reason not to make an investment to grow downtown and the area around it? No. In fact, it might make it more essential to do so. Downtown Milwaukee has 2% of the city’s land and generates 13% of its property taxes. If it’s able to produce even more tax revenue that’s more teachers, cops, firefighters and transit accessible jobs.

    Is the streetcar project perfect? No. In my mind, it’s probably a bit too small. Are the utility projections real? No, because until recently We Energies has essentially held off on identifying where things are for the city (despite winning at the PSC).

    Should the money be spent on the county transit system instead of a new streetcar? Probably not. The county already got 1/3 of the $92 million remaining. They bought new buses. But the challenge the bus system faces is having the operating budget to use them. The state has slashed their budget and blocked a dedicated transit sales tax. The streetcar money could be used to buy a number of new buses (for which the system isn’t lacking), but it wouldn’t pay for anyone to drive them.

    Does the Milwaukee Streetcar really have anything to do with millennials though? No. It was proposed long before millennials were the hot buzz word in Milwaukee. A developer looking to promote his controversial project just tossed that out.

  8. Nathanael

    The Milwaukee streetcar project is well worth it. Basically, Milwaukee has to start somewhere (and buses aren’t the start to anything), and it’s been fighting a hostile state government, and a federal government which demands that it lowball ridership estimates, so the starter plans have become very small.

    Once ridership is twice the predicted estimates, Milwaukee can start building better extensions to the streetcar. But they have to build something as proof of concept first.

    And Milwaukee has plotted out a perfectly reasonable route. Better than the Cincinatti streetcar route (which is OK but not very good), better than the Portland streetcar route, and much better than the LA streetcar route.

    Why are they building it? Because they’re several decades overdue to do so, if they want the city to have a chance. But they’ve got to start somewhere with urban transportation (and no, buses aren’t a start), and the streetcar design they have is a decent start.

    From the website:
    “The initial route and extensions would be within a quarter-mile* of the following destinations:

    100% Hotels
    90% occupied office
    90% occupied Retail
    77% of parking
    77% of housing
    90% of major downtown attractions
    100% of downtown’s 20 largest employers

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