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Millennials and the Politics of Transportation

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

Tags: transportation , millennials

Yonah Freemark wrote at the Transport Politic last week that “we cannot bank our hopes for a less car-dependent future on the supposed preferences of a new generation” – that new generation being, naturally, the Millennials. Rather than holding out hope that changing travel preferences will suffice, he writes:

We must do a better job developing a political argument—an ideological claim—that can support a transition away from road building and a society built around it that works not just in the aforementioned center cities but also in the suburbs of those cities and in other regions. Only with a change in the way our society is built—meaning not only the way our transportation is planned but also the way our neighborhoods are structured—will the level of automobile use actually decline, and that change requires political support. A generational change of mindset is not enough.

On the broader point – that the change in travel behaviors among Millennials to date is insufficient in the face of the massive environmental, public health and economic problems posed by our car-dependent transportation system and the policy inertia that perpetuates it – Freemark is 100 percent correct. We have argued for years that changing transportation needs and desires must be seen largely as a call for a dramatic shift in our policies and investment priorities.

But the “generational change in mindset” to which Freemark refers is not limited to changes in personal behavior or lifestyle preferences. Millennials also have differing views on transportation policy questions than older Americans. So, it is worth asking what role young Americans might have in developing and pressing the “political argument” that Freemark so urgently and rightly desires.

Peer deeply into the crosstabs of most recent polls on transportation issues and you will often find a gap between what younger and older Americans want from transportation policy:

  • Young people are consistently more likely to support the use of gas tax revenue for public transportation than older Americans. According to a survey by the Mineta Transportation Institute, (PDF) 77 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 support using some gas tax revenue for transit, compared with 57 percent of those over the age of 55.
  • Young people support giving public transportation a higher policy priority than older Americans. A 2014 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 62 percent of 18- to 39 year-olds believe that government should focus on expanding public transportation as opposed to highways, compared with 42 percent of those over the age of 65. Even a 2014 poll by the highway-obsessed Reason Foundation found that 42 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds supported public transit and 7 percent supported bike lanes as the top priority for transportation spending, compared with 33 percent and 2 percent, respectively, of those over 65.
  • We wrote last July about an astonishing poll from the firm Morning Consult that found 18- to 29-year-olds evenly split on whether to let the federal highway account expire. By contrast, those over 55 years of age favored retaining a federal highway spending program by a five-to-one margin.
  • Young people also appear more likely than older generations to support increased funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs and infrastructure. (Examples: here, here and here.)

If Millennials do favor a change in direction on transportation policy, as these polling results suggest, why then has that not yet translated into a shift in the politics?

To some extent, I think it already has. Regardless of what you think of Uber, for example, it is hard to argue that Millennials’ embrace of and defense of the service has not altered the political debate around how it should be regulated. Similarly, young people are providing much of the motive force behind the renewal of bicycle and complete streets-type advocacy happening around the country.

And it is simply not true that these political claims are only being made in big cities, or the central areas thereof. As a native Pittsburgher, I continue to be amazed at how the transportation conversation there has evolved. While the mayor of my current dense, transit-rich city responds to questions about bike lanes by defending his bona fides as a “car guy,” the mayor of my former home town talks eloquently and passionately about the need for a less car-dependent future – symbolizing a political shift that was made possible by years of grassroots organizing and advocacy. Moreover, some of the most provocative debates about the efficacy of the car-dependent land use model are being driven by the nascent Strong Towns movement, which, while not necessarily Millennial-focused, does much of its work in cities and towns that rarely make it onto urbanists’ radar screens.

Still, it is clear that transportation advocacy – whether led by Millennials or others – is failing to meet the challenge. Why is that?

Let me suggest two causes. First, the vigorous transportation advocacy and organizing mentioned above is happening at the local level. While much of it has been effective, a thoroughgoing change in direction is impossible without a shift in priorities at the federal and state levels. Mariia Zimmerman’s must-read righteous rant last week about the state of the current federal transportation bills is an indicator of just how divorced from reality and good sense the current debate in Congress is – and of how minimal the pushback from advocates for a sustainable transportation system has been. No one should be under any illusion that a good transportation bill will pass this Congress, the next one, or the one after that. But if advocates aren’t using the next five years to build the intellectual case and organizing strength to win such a shift in the future, the chances of it ever happening will grow more remote.

Second, the transportation advocacy community remains locked, in many cases, into an outmoded strategic paradigm – one in which the political weakness of reformers is taken as a given and “big tent” coalition building with the highway lobby is considered a necessary evil. That paradigm is increasingly being exposed as substantively lacking (tacking a token increase in transit onto a massive highway plan is not, in any real sense, progress) and increasingly ineffective – especially at a time when revenues dedicated to transportation are shrinking, not growing.  A new paradigm, applicable to the 21st century, has yet to fully emerge.

Yet, in Millennials’ answers to transportation policy questions, you can perhaps see the outline of it: cost savings through reduced spending on new roads; openness (within reasonable limits) to non-traditional, technology-based approaches to transportation problems; greater demands for efficiency, transparency and customer orientation in the provision of transportation services; and increased emphasis on weaving transit, bicycling and walking into the very fabric of our cities and neighborhoods. At the same time, you can also identify the tensions that will challenge it – about the role of the private versus the public sector, the approach to questions of equity, and continued concerns about the availability of public funding.

I am more hopeful than Freemark about the durability of Millennials’ recent tentative shifts away from car-dependent living (our case is made in greatest detail in our 2014 report, Millennials in Motion). Those changes – along with Millennials’ distinctive outlook on questions of transportation policy – provide an opportunity for, if not guarantee of, more transformative change. It’s up to all of us – of all generations – to make the most of that opportunity.