Are Millennials driving the U.S. toward a European Transportation Model?

Ah, Paris, the city of lights. The Arc de Triomphe. The Eiffel Tower. The bread, the wine, the cheese. The public transportation. Yes, you read that right. The public transportation. Like many of its European counterparts, Paris has a robust public transit system. It consists of light rail, metro, train, bus, and RER (a rapid transit system that connects Paris with its surrounding suburbs). In fact, a recent study by the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy found that 100 percent of Parisians have easy access to public transportation of one kind or another. Home to the RATP Group, formed in 1949 as the city’s public transport operator, Paris has risen the ranks as one of the top public transit systems in the world. 

In general, public transportation in Europe is efficient and easy to use. In fact, European public transportation systems are so good that many urban Europeans never learn how to drive a car. How many people do you know who don’t know how to drive a car? I bet you can count them on one hand! But in Europe, countries prioritize public transportation over single occupancy vehicles. For example, many European cities disincentivize driving by putting limits on parking, initiating congestion pricing, and putting restrictions on car usage in city centers. Also, in European countries, car owners typically pay more in taxes and fees to cover the actual cost of driving than drivers pay in the U.S. The result: car ownership in Europe is not as pervasive as it is in the United States. Compare France and the U.S. for example. In France, there are only 479 motor vehicles for every 1,000 people. In the United States, there are 910 per 1,000 people. Why endure higher costs and traffic when the Metro is perfectly accessible and streamlined? Perhaps this mentality is the leading reason for the estimated four million passengers a day choosing the Paris Metro over other forms of transport.


Recent numbers posted by the Federal Transit Administration show that nationwide ridership in the United States is declining for various modes of public transit. From 2016 to 2017, commuter rails lost 3.5 percent of its riders; heavy rail lost 3.9, light rail 4.7 percent and buses 6 percent. But before you think that spells out doom and gloom for public transportation in the U.S., think about this: according to a 2014 survey by Global Strategy Group, when millennials are deciding where to set down roots, access to public transportation is a top priority. In fact, 54% of millennials would consider moving to another city if it offered better and more diverse mobility options. Furthermore, 91% of millennials believe that investing in quality public transportation creates jobs and improves the economy.


Unlike their baby boomer and Generation X predecessors, millennials are rejecting car ownership in favor of alternative modes of transport. Whereas baby boomers might just hop in a car without giving it a thought, says millennials see themselves as multimodal; they think about where they are going and consider the options available to them. Moreover, millennials like the freedom of living debt-free. And living without a car can be a boon to the budget. Cost savings associated with of living with one less car and taking public transportation are estimated to be nearly $10,000.


So, what can public transit agencies do to attract these millennials who are eschewing cars in favor of multimodal means of transit? According to a paper from the ATPA entitled Millennials & Mobility: Understanding the Millennial mindset, the issues that are most important to them are: (1) a reliable system, (2) real time updates, (3) Wi-Fi on all vehicles, and (3) a more user-friendly and intuitive travel experience (for example, the ability to use a smartphone for fare payment).


There is reason to be optimistic about the future of public transportation in the U.S. And the reason for that optimism is those tech-savvy, ear-bud wearing millennials. Millennials seem to have a more European outlook on transportation. They see an interconnected, multimodal public transportation system as a vital societal function, AND as a sign of an economically healthy and socially vibrant community. Like their Europeans peers, younger Americans will happily take public transportation provided that transportation is convenient, frequent, and reliable. Will the rest of us embrace their lead?



Photo Credit:
Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash


Shivani Rajan