Car culture no longer represents the “American Dream” for young Americans. Many young people today prefer car-light, multimodal lifestyles that allow them to get around efficiently, multitask while commuting, and feel connected to their communities. Millennials are drawn to the high quality of life in places that offer extensive and safe walking and biking options, as well as clean, fast, and efficient public transportation networks.[i] Moreover, this preference for multimodal lifestyles appears to be influencing young people’s decisions about where to live and work.[ii]
State and federal policy makers have done little to understand the changing transportation preferences of today’s youth,[iii] or to ensure that today’s transportation investments will meet tomorrow’s evolving needs. The WISPIRG Foundation set out to learn more about how young people today get around, and how they want to get around now and in the future. To do so, we surveyed 612 college students on twenty-four campuses statewide during the 2017-18 school year. (The survey sample was not scientifically selected.)
Our study’s results show that Wisconsin’s current policy priorities will fail to create the multimodal transportation system young adults want. A large majority of survey participants told us that the availability of multimodal transportation options – or the lack thereof – may factor into their decisions about where to live and work in the future.
The key findings of our survey are:
- 75 percent of students surveyed said it was either “very important” or “somewhat important” for them to live in a place with non-driving transportation options after graduation.
- 55 percent of students surveyed said they would either be “somewhat more likely” or “much more likely” to stay in Wisconsin after graduation if they could live in a place where trips for work, recreation, and errands did not require a car.
Given Wisconsin’s historic emphasis on expanding highway capacity, often at the expense of investment in non-driving modes that appeal to young Americans, such as public transportation, biking infrastructure, and walkable communities,[iv] the findings of our survey suggest that Wisconsin’s current transportation system and spending priorities could undermine our ability to attract and retain young people.
Investing in a 21st century, multimodal transportation system could help attract young people to Wisconsin and retain talented young people already in the state. Without a new approach to transportation policy, all Wisconsinites, not only young adults, will miss out on the benefits offered by multimodal communities.
In order to make Wisconsin a more attractive place for young people, and to create a clean and effective transportation system that better serves all Wisconsinites, policymakers at the state and federal level should:
- Drastically increase funding for multimodal transportation options: To meet 21st century transportation needs and create more vibrant, livable communities, policymakers should invest in and encourage the use of non-driving transportation alternatives, from public transit, to walking and biking infrastructure, to intercity bus and rail networks.
- Realign our transportation spending priorities: Decisionmakers should reorient transportation funding away from new or wider highways and toward repair of existing roads and bridges, and towards multimodal options like transit, walking and biking.
- Study the evolving transportation preferences of young people: Governments should invest in data collection and research to track and react to ongoing shifts in how young people – and people of all ages – travel.
- Encourage the creation of multimodal communities by restoring the state’s Complete Streets policy. Complete Streets policies encourage communities to incorporate walking, biking and transit options into roadway design or reconstruction projects, whenever possible.
- Support the formation of Regional Transportation Authorities (RTAs): RTAs, which need legislative approval in Wisconsin, allow cities and counties to raise revenue in support of coordinated, high-quality, regional transportation systems.
Policymakers need to recognize that the transportation paradigm is shifting. Today’s young people will be the primary users of Wisconsin’s transportation system for decades to come – and they are leading the shift to more multimodal lifestyles. Ambitious investments in a multimodal transportation network will help ensure that our state becomes more attractive to the talented young people that our communities need to thrive in the 21st century.
By leaning into these changing habits and shaping our transportation system accordingly, we also stand to improve quality of life for Wisconsinites across the age spectrum, and reap the widespread public health, environmental, and climate benefits that result from reduced driving. By contrast, sinking taxpayer dollars into wasteful, unnecessary highway projects risks squandering this opportunity and driving young people away.
Will Wisconsin create a transportation system for the future, or continue building for the past?
[i] See, for example, Rockefeller Foundation, Transportation for America and Global Strategy Group, Rockefeller Millennials Survey, April 2014; and The Nielsen Company, Millennials – Breaking the Myths, February 2014, pages 15-17.
[ii] Rockefeller Foundation, Transportation for America and Global Strategy Group, Rockefeller Millennials Survey, April 2014.
[iii] State: A 2017 audit of Wisconsin’s State Highway Program found that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation had failed to consistently document assumptions used in traffic forecasting. State of Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, Report 17-2, Audit of State Highway Program, January 2017, page 52. Federal: The U.S. Department of Transportation continually overestimates how much people will drive, failing to adjust estimates based on easing demand. Eric Sundquist, State Smart Transportation Initiative, U.S. DOT Highway Travel Demand Estimates Continue to Overshoot Reality (blog post), March 10, 2014, https://www.ssti.us/2014/03/u-s-dot-highway-travel-demand-estimates-continue-to-overshoot-reality/.
[iv] Tom Van Heeke and Jeff Inglis, Frontier Group, and Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Foundation, Fork in the Road: Will Wisconsin Waste Money on Unneeded Highway Expansion or Invest in 21st Century Transportation Priorities? 2014.