Transit blog, day nine

The changing face of ‘those people’

One of my main take-aways from this project has been that many people — roughly four out of every five I’ve spoken with — have developed a certain perception of who uses public transit.

Some believe transit users are all homeless or nearly so. One woman told me that most bus riders are people with alcohol addictions who have had their driver’s license revoked by the state.

Still others have implied the system would be more efficient if it only stopped at Goodwill or other places that employ people with disabilities.

An added tax on retirement housing complexes and nursing homes should be explored, one man wrote, since the elderly are primary transit consumers.

Large, local businesses should sponsor transit services, noted another, because such a taxpayer subsidy enables payment of lower wages for the employees that commute by bus.

More than once I’ve been applauded for my bravery in joining “those people” on the public transit system, and scolded for allowing my teenage daughter to do the same. The exact definition of “those people” really depends on who uttered the phrase. It could mean black or Hispanic people, poor people, disabled people, addicted people, heavily tattooed people or guilty-of-past-mistakes people. I’ve begun to feel confident in my assumption that, no matter the exact meaning, “those people” look differently than whomever is speaking the phrase.

There is, however, one demographic I see on city buses who aren’t typically perceived as being consumers. These riders were born between roughly 1978 and 1994 and are collectively known as Generation Y or Millennials.

The Cedar Rapids Ground Transportation Center in May 2016.
The Cedar Rapids Ground Transportation Center in May 2016. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

A survey released by The Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America on Millennials’ attitudes on transportation found that almost half (46 percent) of vehicle owners would “seriously consider giving up their cars if they could count on a range of transportation options.” More than half (54 percent) would move to a community to access better public transit options.

A poll by the Urban Land Institute and MASSINC found people between the ages of 20 and 37 used public transit, even though they had access to a car. Nearly 80 percent said it was “very important” for a workplace to be near public transit, well above the number who wanted workplaces near restaurants or bars. And, 80 percent of Millennials searching for a home placed transit access as one of their top three requirements. On-street parking was only present in 25 percent of their answers.

The shift is a byproduct of the values held by this generation. For instance, the reduced environmental impact is appealing, as is the social aspect of traveling with other people. Using public transit frees up hands for other tasks like using mobile devices.

But whatever the reason, it’s a trend that local and state economic development leaders should be considering.

At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, the Iowa Chamber Alliance, which represents 16 chambers of commerce and economic development groups including the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, laid out its priorities. First on that list was workforce.

“Economic growth is important and what we are realizing is that if businesses can’t find the right people with the right skills, it will be hard for them to grow,” former CRMEA executive Dee Baird said at a December 2015 news conference.

It’s a refrain that has been repeated across the state for several years. Cities, large and small, want to know what they can do to entice and sustain a thriving workforce. How can Iowa keep Millennials from moving to other states? How do we make our communities more appealing to business interests?

The first thing the Boomer and GenX decision-makers should do is set aside their preconceived notions about how Millennials want to live, work and play. They aren’t necessarily looking for a home in the suburbs. They care about the environment, and want to do their part. They relish opportunities to connect with people and community. They want more transportation options that align with their values.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Take the bus for your morning commute, insert your head between a Millennial’s eyes and his/her mobile phone and ask for yourself.

This blog post by Lynda Waddington originally published on The Gazette website on May 12, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette