New Survey: Wisconsin Brain Drain Partly Because Youth Seek Alternatives to Driving?

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Out-of-Touch State Transportation Budget Priorities Risk Pushing Millennials, Young Talent Out of State to More Walkable, Bikeable, Transit-Friendly Communities

WISPIRG Foundation

Madison, WI — For the last decade, Wisconsin has been experiencing a “brain drain,” with more college graduates leaving the state than staying. One factor could be our crumbling transit infrastructure and lack of driving alternatives, according to “Driving Wisconsin’s ‘Brain Drain’: How Outdated Transportation Policies Undermine Wisconsin’s Ability to Attract and Retain Young Talent for Tomorrow’s Economic Prosperity.”  

The new WISPIRG Foundation survey revealed that most Wisconsin college students want the ability to get around without a car, and many may leave Wisconsin without that option. This demand starkly contrasts with Wisconsin transportation policies, which often favor extravagant highway expansion projects over critical transit upgrades.

“Living in a community that has biking and transit options is increasingly important to me as I start to think about where I might live after graduation,” said Claire Cameron, a UW Madison senior next year. “Transportation officials and engineers need to stop planning for the past, and plan for the future by making sure that we are providing quality of life amenities like a good transit system that will make this a desirable place to live after graduation for people like me and many other young adults who have a deep connection to Wisconsin and cities like Madison.”

WISPIRG Foundation surveyed 530 college students at 14 Wisconsin campuses, and found that:

• 60 percent of respondents said they would be at least “somewhat more likely” to stay in Wisconsin after graduation if they could live in a place where they could get around without driving. Of that group, a majority said the ability to live in places with transportation alternatives would make them “much more likely” to remain in Wisconsin.

• 47 percent of all respondents said that living in a place after graduation where there are options other than driving is “very important.”  An additional 35 percent said that having transportation options was “somewhat important” and only 14 percent said that it was “not important.”

• 84 percent of respondents said that it was either “very important” or “somewhat important” for them to have transportation options other than a car to get around.

“The Millennial generation seeks a different transportation future, and our state leaders need to adapt or risk losing the young talent that is essential to Wisconsin’s future economic prosperity,” said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Foundation Director.  “If Wisconsin political leaders and business leaders want to recruit and retain young talent in Wisconsin, then we need to reconsider our state transportation priorities and make sure we provide the transit, bike and non-driving transportation options that young people gravitate towards.”

Recruiting and retaining young talent is essential for communities to thrive in today’s knowledge-based economy.  Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has found that the presence of college graduates has been the best social or economic predictor of a city’s future growth in each of the last several decades.  Wisconsin has been a net exporter of college educated talent for the last decade.  

Numerous recent studies have found that Millennials are placing a greater emphasis on place and the amenities it provides including more and better transportation options.  An April 2014 survey by the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America found that more than half (54 percent) of the Millennials that they surveyed would consider moving to another city if it had more and better transportation options.  

“As a City we are working on this important issue, recognizing the importance of serving all residents,” said Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. “We need the finest public transit whether we are serving Owl Creek or Epic’s campus.”

Over the past ten years – a time when Wisconsinites like Americans generally have been driving less and seeking other transportation options – state leaders have cut state funding for transit and other non-driving modes, while state spending on highway expansion has increased greatly.  

“The Millennial generation is seeking a different transportation future than the spending priorities of state and federal leaders.  Our state transportation budget is out of touch with the way young people are getting around and the transportation future they seek,” concluded Speight.  “State leaders need to reform transportation priorities or risk losing the young talent and educated workforce that are crucial to our economic prosperity.”

WISPIRG Foundation urges state and federal leaders to:

• Increase funding for the transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure that more and more Millennials are demanding and gravitating towards,

• Save money by scaling back or cancelling unneeded highway expansion, 

• Collect more data on the transportation preferences of young people, and

• Revisit past traffic growth projections for proposed highway expansion projects in light of recent trends in driving, 

The survey was not conducted with a scientifically selected sample.  Nonetheless, the results of the survey suggest that the Millennial generation seeks a different transportation future than their predecessors and that transportation options may be a factor in future decisions about where today’s Wisconsin students decide to live.  

To read WISPIRG Foundation’s series on Wisconsin’s misplaced transportation priorities and the end of America’s driving boom, go here.

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WISPIRG Foundation works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation.