Cracking the Millennial Question

There’s a lot of buzz at the American Public Transportation Association Legislative Conference this year and it’s not all about President Obama’s proposal to fund projects for the next couple of years.

Part of that buzz is, well, about me. Thanks, guys. I’m flattered.

OK, it’s not really me specifically, by my generation — the Millennials.

We’re riding public transportation in greater numbers than previous generations. Just look at today’s headlines about record ridership in 2013. A massive part of that record ridership is our desire to ride transit.

But still, there’s more that can be done to get us to ride transit more. To such a point that all you’re hearing from transit CEO’s this year is the same question — what do Millennials want and how do we get even more of them to be frequent transit riders?

I’ll take a moment to speak on behalf of the rest of us and let you know the big secret: we’re not that tough of a nut to crack. Seriously. All we want is options to not drive. We hate driving. I can attest to that. We want valid options on how to get from A to B without having to get in a car. In 32 years I’ve never rented a car in my life because whenever I travel I take transit. Some people might find that strange, but among friends my own age, this is normal.  

There are a lot of reasons for this decision. We grew up in the death rattle of the age of the car love affair and instead of seeing it as a tool of freedom, we see it as yoke of debt and a burden that keeps us from going out and having a good time without having to worry about where to park, hope it doesn’t get damaged and have to worry about how to get home in the event you have a little too much fun while on a night on the town.

If you want us to ride more often, I’d suggest building your system improvements on three pillars — technology, ease of use and service time.

When I get on a bus or train, I want it to be easy. I want to pay with my phone or debit card or a fare card that can be purchased easily. A big fear people my age who don’t use transit have is looking like an idiot when they go to the bus and not knowing what to do when they board. You may see paying to board as a no-brainer being a transit professional, but look at it through the eyes of someone who has never stepped on a bus or train before and is now flirting with the idea. You don’t want to be remembered as the guy who didn’t know what to do when he got on the bus or got barked at by a bus driver for taking too much time. I know I got hooked on transit when I was in my early 20’s and I took the bus to a Brewers game and when I had accidently purchased an expired pass from a nearby drug store, the driver simply told me what I had done wrong, then let it slide. See? That’s all it took. One friendly operator and now I ride whenever I can and have ever since advocated others to do so. 

Now add arrival times to the stops and it makes this boarding even easier. Whenever I travel, the first thing I do when the plane lands is search my phone for an app for the local transit agency. Again, this is pretty standard for most Millennials. It makes boarding a new system that much less stressful.

Now when I board a bus or train, I want to access the Internet. I want to watch Hulu or Netflix shows on my way to work. I want to check Facebook. I want to see my email. Catching up with friends or TV shows are much more appealing that staring at the back end of a tractor-trailer on the expressway while sitting in a traffic jam. If you build this, more of us will come.

And lastly, service time is very key. Whether it’s rail or bus rapid transit, the key word is “rapid.” If the service is quick, we will ride. One of the biggest issues I’ve seen is when someone has tried an “express” route that is express in name only. When you call something express and it’s not express, you lose a Millennial. Many of us are highly skeptical of what we’re being sold by most anyone given how many sad truths have been unveiled in other industries. If the name doesn’t fit the service, you will get lumped into that category of misleading the customer and it’s hard to win us back.

See? We’re not that difficult to understand. Granted, I say this in the position of someone who doesn’t have to directly shell out the money for these improvements, but I am saying this from the position of a generation that’s begging you to make us frequent customers and to take our money to make it work better.

There’s a lot going on in transit right now and really the industry is at a pivotal point where agencies need to start thinking about how they plan to operate moving forward. But as you approach these issues and think about funding requests, remember that a potential industry golden age is waiting out there ready to be seized.

Now all you have to do is come and get us.   

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