Alarm, shower, coffee, breakfast. Up until the moment the door slams, weekday-morning routines might be virtually standard across generations of Americans – but if that next step takes you to a sidewalk rather than a driver’s seat, chances are you’re a millennial.
More than ever before, young people in the United States are choosing not to own cars, and even if they do, they are more likely to use alternative transportation than previous generations.
This trend requires some context. Contrary to common stereotypes, millennials’ deviation from personal automobiles has more to do with rising convenience than pure environmental fervor. This rings true for several reasons:
- While gas is still relatively cheap, owning a car can be quite expensive when costs like parking and maintenance are taken into account
- Millennials are more likely to want to live near city centers where scarce parking and traffic often make alternatives the quicker, cheaper option, and
- A sizable proportion of this demographic resides on college campuses, which are often well-connected by public transportation.
Yes, millennials care about climate change. They also care about not having to find parking before class.
In fact, incentives are growing for today’s university students to consider alternative transportation when traveling to and across campus. One 2008 survey of 29 higher education institutions, cited here [PDF], found that more than 50 percent provided services such as bicycle paths/lanes, shuttle services to campus, free or discounted transit passes, and emergency-ride-home service for students or employees. Many also employ additional strategies such as ridematching services for carpooling, walkable campus design, and marketing outreach. And given a demographic predisposed to other modes, conditions are right for more forward-thinking campus transportation policies.
While institutions of higher learning do tend to be more supportive of issues like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, of which transportation is now the largest contributor in the U.S., there is also a clear business incentive to put limited real estate to the most productive uses – not to parking spaces.
That may be one of the reasons why universities have invested so heavily in transportation demand management, and the results are impressive. A recent U.S. Department of Transportation analysis [PDF] of five college campuses found that all had reached the “tipping point” of mobility parity, meaning under 50 percent of students and faculty commuted using single-occupant vehicles. In several cases, the SOV rate was even lower than 20 percent. When juxtaposed with an increasing national rate of 76 percent mirrored in the surrounding metropolitan areas, that is an extraordinary accomplishment.
Despite theories about the iron-tight grip of American car culture, these TDM initiatives continue to have smooth social transitions. The trick to discouraging driving cars seems to be simply making it more appealing to avoid them – college students are excellent testaments to this phenomenon.
In one example, the University of Kentucky launched a program that paid students to bike to class. In exchange for a two-year commitment to live on campus car-free, 100 eligible UK students and faculty received a $400 voucher redeemable at participating local bicycle shops. The program received 462 applications in its first year.
Similarly, Westminster College reduced SOV rates among students and faculty by 25 percent in just four years by providing free transit passes, campus bike-loan programs, charging for parking, and reserving preferred “rock star” spaces for cars carrying multiple passengers.
Where universities have lacked the funding or initiative, technological innovation has stepped up to bridge the mobility gap.
In recent years, car- and ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar have garnered immense popularity as quick, cheap alternatives to driving and car ownership, and in many cases actually reduced the need for personal vehicles. Even off-campus these initiatives have drawn widespread success. The Seattle Department of Transportation reported approximately 9,100 vehicles taken off the road as a result of the city’s car-sharing program.
Bike-sharing services have also proved effective on college campuses. Although some universities fund their own programs in partnership with the surrounding community, Zipcar recently announced its plan to streamline car- and bikesharing into a single membership on 10 college campuses by the end of this year. “Zipbike” is projected to dramatically increase university bike-sharing through a 90 percent cost reduction, typically as much as $150 monthly per bicycle.
Born from a potent brew of limited real estate, the high value of efficiency, and proximity to a demographic raised in the unquestionable reality of climate change, the transportation evolution taking place at America’s universities is a powerful example for the rest of the country.
Photo: Bike parking at the University of Kentucky (Matter Photography, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, mbike bikeshare program at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. (Dan Reed, Flickr, Creative Commons).