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Back to School Millennials and Mobility: The Growing Value of Public Transportation

Behind the scenes on Texas college campuses, a group of Millennials, who want more mobility options, is getting its legs on the ground. Can an alliance of 50,000 students (and growing) be ignored?

Students at Sam Houston State University, the University of North Texas and Navarro College are taking keen interest in the future of the state’s infrastructure, particularly that which offers transportation alternatives for large metropolitan areas and within the urban core.

At work is the Texas Infrastructure Student Alliance (TISA), a nonpartisan coalition of university students who support innovative infrastructure projects in Texas. With a goal to be at least 100,000 strong before summer, TISA is testament that Millennials – ages 18-34 – desire a lifestyle devoid of long commutes on congested roadways.

So, apartment industry, listen up as you ponder the path of this most talked-about generation. At least some millennials seem to be headed where mass transit takes them now and in the next few years, which may take the train of thought  for how multifamily markets its products in the future to another level.

Owning a car is “baggage” for some

Drew Carson, a 23-year-old Sam Houston State graduate student who helped form TISA, was among a handful of millennial panelists at last week’s Southwestern Rail Conference in Dallas.

Carson noted that many students view owning a car as “baggage” because it’s expensive to buy and maintain and difficult to park on crowded campuses or city streets. Having public or private transit options close to housing would promote a greater sense of community and enable students to be more productive on the go, he said.

“It might even raise our GPAs,” he added with a laugh.

“A lot of students came up to us personally about the high-speed rail,” Carson said. There is declining interest in auto and more need for time for electronic devices and productive time for work.”

TCR Outreach Coordinator Rebecca Cowle, 24, helped organize the conference panel. In recent months, she reached out to Texas universities and their student government associations to generate awareness and quickly realized she had an eager audience.

“People my age – the Millennials – are some of the strongest advocates for alternative modes of transportation. I wanted to make sure they weren’t being left out of the conversation,” she said. “After speaking at multiple universities, it was the students who stood up and said, ‘We need to be more vocal about our support.’ ”

Millennials and kids in college often can’t afford cars, and graduates are challenged by a fluctuating job market and big college loans. Nicolas Norboge, a 27-year-old assistant transportation researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said he and other Millennials would rather not place as much emphasis on owning a car.

Living close to a transit stop makes more sense.

“I could see that being a major value,” he said. “It matters a lot to how close you’re connected to a good, effective transit system.  Great infrastructure really increases the demand to want to be (in urban centers).”

Modern national transportation system needed

Advocates say transportation infrastructure in the U.S. sorely needs upgrading.

American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Chairman Phillip A. Washington fears for the country’s transportation network. APTA is seeking a six-year deal worth $100 billion for transit agencies to fix infrastructure to keep up with growing ridership, which reached a record 10.7 billion trips in 2013.

“It’s a crucial time for infrastructure,” Washington said. “The reason is that infrastructure is falling apart. Like your dad got you a car and you don’t change the oil for 10 years. You expect that car to run, but at some point it won’t.”

Logan McLeod, director of resource development for the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), said he and other Millennials are worried they will not have a sound transportation system in the future to support their lifestyles. He said train transit matters to his generation, and he points to a recent movement where college students played a role in saving an Amtrak commuter train, the Hoosier State, between Indianapolis and Chicago.

About a year ago, McLeod helped create the “Millennial campaign,” a grass-roots effort to educate younger generations on intermodal transportation. At the rail conference, he moderated the panel, which streamed live on Facebook.

“Our concern is that the future generation will not have a modern, interconnected national transportation system that will allow us to flourish,” he said.

APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy said last summer at the association’s conference in Houston that transit providers should note that millennials and baby boomers are key players in the movement to the urban core, where U.S. public transportation is most dominant.

Flexible transit options would be a benefit

In 2013, APTA published a study on Millennials and Mobility, that found that Millennials use multiple travel options several times or more per week. According to 54 percent of Millennials polled, public transportation ranked highest as the best mode of transportation.

Norboge, who is also a member of the Houston chapter of the Young Professionals in Transportation (YPT), sees the relationship between Millennials and public transportation as long-term rather than a temporary cost-efficient solution. In fact, many YPT members would prefer not to have cars, he said.

He and his wife currently rely on the cars they drove in high school to commute to their jobs.

Even though it’s easier to get around by car, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a balance between the two transportation modes now and in the future, Norboge said.

“Living close to a transit station would provide some additional benefits,” he said. “Maybe I drive to work one or two days a week, and maybe I take the bus on the other days. Being open to flexible options would really be appealing.”

Norboge doesn’t see the couple moving farther out of the city any time soon. What he does envision for the longer term is a lifestyle that includes a transit alternative close to the action.