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Rail~Volution Recap: The Power of Millennials and Transit Planning in the Twin Cities

Photo by Kyle Mianulli

Commissioner Charlie Zelle of Minnesota Department of Transportation speaking at the opening plenary

Photo courtesy of Railvolution

Photo courtesy Railvolution

Minneapolis put its best foot forward for the 20th annual Rail~Volution conference, held September 21-24 at the Hyatt on Nicollet Mall. Drawing more than 600 of the nation’s top transit planners and policy-makers, the conference highlighted transit-oriented development, sustainable design and exciting technological innovations happening from coast to coast.
The focus, naturally, was on the Twin Cities, where “the region's 3.2 million people create a vibrant society,” according to Rail~Volution’s website, using “integrated systems and connections to light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit; an expansive bus system; and the...Nice Ride bike share program” to get around. That’s high praise for a conference that began in transit-crazy Portland, Oregon.
Though Rail~Volution spoke to transit users of all ages, this year’s message was clear: Despite Millennials’ propensity for tweeting, selfies and Instagrams of food, not to mention short attention spans, the 14-34 age demographic is reshaping the way cities are built.
At 95 million strong, Millennials are already the largest generation alive today: Generation X accounts for 89 million compared to 68 million living Baby Boomers. By 2025, Millennials will comprise the vast majority of the U.S. workforce. For cities that want to attract and retain top talent in the coming decades, catering to Millennials’ preferences for effective transit options will be essential.
Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers, like general manager Brian J. Lamb and transportation police chief John Harrington, still largely call the shots at Metro Transit. And most of Rail~Volution’s speakers belonged to those two generations as well. But the conference’s luminaries devoted the bulk of their speaking time to demystifying the inner workings of the next dominant generation: Millennials.
Most every discussion of cycling, streetcars, transit apps and even parking circled back to the coveted 14-34-year-old demographic. While Millennials might not be running the show yet, Rail~Volution offered countless examples of how they’ve already taken center stage in Twin Cities’ and national urban planning conversations.
Desire or need, Millennials demand transit options
If building for the future means building for the preferences of Millennials, having an effective public transit system is crucial. In a recent national survey, 66 percent of Millennials listed high quality transportation as the top factor in deciding where to live, said Hannah Ubl, a generational expert at Minneapolis-based Bridgeworks. Ubl presented “Demographics + Change: What’s Really Going On?” as the convention’s closing plenary.
As the most educated of all living generations at this phase in life, Millennials also value transit because they understand its benefits on a conceptual or academic level. “Those with higher degrees tend to be more supportive of public transit and public investments,” said John Horvick, Director of Research at DHM Research in Portland, Oregon, who presented at the “Millennials + Boomers: A Win-Win Plan for All” workshop at Rail~Volution.
Due to their conceptual understanding of transit’s benefits, Millennials support transit even when it serves under-resourced and under-educated populations, such as those found in many neighborhoods along the Green Line.
A recent survey by DHM found that 50 percent of Millennials would drive less if other options were made available. “They’re active and willing customers. It isn’t just something that’s done out of convenience and necessity. They’re making an active choice,” Horvick said.
But there are practical reasons Millennials are flocking to transit and leaving personal car ownership behind, as well. Becoming the most educated generation came at great cost. Two-thirds of today’s college graduates are in debt, at an average of $23,000 per person.
“[This debt] is going to have impacts on their ability to purchase a home…as well as on whether or not they’re able to take out a loan for a car. There are transportation decisions that fall from that,” Horvick said.
“Millennials’ lives are very different than baby boomers’,” said Richard Trail, director of business development for Siemens’ metro, coach and light rail division, in an interview at the colorful Siemens display in Rail~Volution’s main exhibition hall. “The two car, suburban household is already becoming less attractive. Thanks to carsharing services [like Car2Go], many Millennials can get by with no car at all in the Twin Cities.”
The Twin Cities seem to be answering the Millennials’ demand for better transit. In addition to the billion dollar Green Line LRT that opened in June connecting the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, plans for a $1.7 billion Southwest LRT—an extension of the Green Line that will connect Minneapolis to the western suburbs—are moving ahead, even in the face of staunch opposition from some of the communities the rail system is meant to serve.
In addition, the first of several planned Bus Rapid Transit routes will open in St. Paul next year. Both cities are pursuing extensive expansions to their bicycling infrastructure. Studies for new streetcar systems have been given the green light, too. 
All the while, both private and public money is being pumped into an ever-growing number of high-density, mixed-use development projects near transit.
Where new transit goes development must follow
Transit Oriented Development” (TOD) was mentioned almost as often as “Millennials” at Rail~volution—often in the same breath. As cities continue to invest in transit options, they’re thinking critically about what is built around transit. A slick new transit system won’t get you very far if it doesn’t connect to housing and amenities.
Having lots of housing, jobs, shopping and entertainment clustered around transit is essential to building livable and walkable communities—the essence of TOD. But cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul aren’t currently oriented around TOD. Instead, during the mid-to-late 20th century, the Twin Cities grew outwardly and in an automobile-centric direction.
“Cities looked like a very dangerous place to be” as urban crime and poverty rates rose, said Danny Pleasant, Director of Transportation in Charlotte, North Carolina, who presented during the workshop “Millennials + Boomers: a Win-Win Plan for All.”
Separating homes and communities from businesses and workplaces appeared to reduce the impact of crime and pushed poverty out of sight. Throw in the rise of the automobile and the arrival of the national highway system and the stage was set for the suburbanization of America. “When you think about how much building the Baby Boomers did in the suburbs, you can see why our cities are like they are today,” said Pleasant.
Baby Boomers’ suburban sensibilities couldn’t be more different from Millennials’ urban, transit-friendly preferences. More and more young Americans want to live in dense population centers with easy access to lifestyle and amenities without having to own a car.
For booming cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, that means not only rebuilding transit systems, but reorganizing development around transit stops and lines. While the real estate market is helping with that reorganization and rebuilding, public investment is also being leveraged in the interest of TOD.
“Investors are hot for transit-oriented development,” Pleasant said. “The real estate market is moving to TOD.”
In cities across the country, transit systems are being billed as economic growth engines that attract private investment and spur new development. In Minneapolis and St. Paul at least $2.5 billion in new development has already sprouted up within a half-mile of the new Green Line. Somewhere around $100 million in public investment has also gone to supporting TOD projects.
Another sign that Millennial-friendly transit and development investments are paying off? A thriving micro-brewery scene. “If the brewpubs are popping up, then you’ve probably done something right,” Pleasant said, noting that craft beer is a key indicator of a city’s creativity.
Innovative approaches to a changing cityscape
If Millennials have one overriding characteristic, it’s that they’re highly dependent on technology. A recent survey by DHM Research, for instance, found that 47 percent of Millennials wouldn’t give up their mobile phone willingly. That finding would be unthinkable just 20 years ago.
But Millennials’ growing reliance on mobile devices and an arms-length relationship with personal vehicles creates new opportunities for app developers, transit agencies, civic planners and anyone else who uses technology to engage the population.
So it’s no surprise that many of the innovations on display at Rail~Volution put new technologies to good use. And, this being the Twin Cities, many involved bikes. Take Transit for Livable Communities (TLC). The venerable St. Paul organization just launched an ambitious initiative, possibly the largest in the country, to execute monthly counts of local bike traffic and gauge seasonal changes in ridership. TLC relies on volunteers standing at key choke points, like the Franklin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, to count—and, more often than not, high-five—passing cyclists.
“Our volunteers are so enthusiastic,” said Hilary Reeves, communications director for TLC, whose booth sat just across from Siemens’ in Rail~Volution’s main exhibition hall. “Having the same counters out there over time facilitates a greater sense of community ownership of the Twin Cities’ cycling assets.”
Dero ZAP, another local transit tech innovation, partners with local employers to reward bike commuters for every ride. Cyclists visit Freewheel Bike Shop, Smart Trips St. Paul, University Bike Shop (at the U of M) and other locations for a free RFID tag that attaches to the bike’s frame. ZAP credits the rider’s trip when they pass specialized, pole-mounted readers in the two downtowns, throughout the U of M and along the Green Line. The first 10 credits earn a small financial reward. Every eight credits thereafter garner one entry into a monthly prize drawing for gift certificates, coupons and other prizes. More rides equal more prizes.
“We’re in favor of anything that discourages people from driving to work alone,” said Bill Andre, outreach coordinator for Commuter Connection, a ZAP partner staked out down the corridor from TLC and Siemens in the Rail~Volution exhibition hall.
Local transit planners, meanwhile, are blending old-fashioned social engagement with newfangled technologies. In preparation for the future C Line, a 5.4-mile BRT corridor on Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis, Hennepin County’s Community Works program spearheaded a placemaking campaign that highlighted artistic and cultural assets at Penn & Broadway, Penn & Lowry and other key intersections. Artists Wing Young Huie and Ashley Hanson used part of a $325,000 Intermedia Arts grant to engage a cross-generational group of locals with a ping-pong tournament, ice cream socials, pop-up art and more. They relied heavily on social media and other forms of online outreach to draw crowds to the events.
“Our goal is to celebrate and promote the existing assets in place on the Northside,” said Patricia Fitzgerald, economic and community development manager for Hennepin County, “while planning for a stronger future after the C Line arrives.” She spoke at “Equitable Development: TOD in a Distressed Economy,” a September 23 workshop that drew a standing-room-only crowd.
Minneapolis-St. Paul prides itself on creativity, but we’re not on the cutting edge of every area of transit innovation. We have no answer to GlobeSherpa, a Portland-based company that creates customized, all-encompassing apps for transit agencies and riders. Riders use their phones to buy and display tickets across all modes of transit, with a validation code and special graphics to prevent fraud. Transit agencies (like Portland’s TriMet) can see real-time ridership statistics on the backend, which facilitates easy adjustment of service frequencies and capacity on bus and train lines far faster than previously. By contrast, MetroTransit’s app isn’t multimodal and doesn’t allow for real-time analytics.
Also, public works departments and transit authorities in Minneapolis-St. Paul have been slow to realize that Millennials are giving up personal vehicles and relying more on carsharing. That means the Twin Cities needs to do better with parking, noted Peter Wagenius, policy director for Mayor Betsy Hodges, after the “Equitable Development” workshop. “In the downtowns, we have an embarrassing number of surface parking lots,” he said. “Even converting half of those to garages would be a welcome short-term development.”
More innovative solutions could help with parking as well. Parking garages with “flexible” first floors can be converted to retail as transit options improve. “Stacked” parking allows visitors at multi-use complexes to double park in front of residents’ vehicles during the day. Both ideas would reduce the amount of space needed for each car.
Meanwhile, mobile sensors could help drivers park more efficiently, pinging an app when a lot filled up or became available. And cashless apps, similar to those used by Uber and Lyft, could make parking even more seamless by eliminating trips to the curbside meter machine.
Millennials are the future, finally
Rail~Volution’s message was powerful: Millennials want to live in walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods that offer access to entertainment, shopping and employment opportunities. Personal vehicles and spacious backyards are less important to Millennials than to Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. And compared to previous generations, Millennials are far more comfortable with technological innovations that make urban living easier.
Rail~Volution showed off the best of Minneapolis-St. Paul, making clear that our region is a national leader in transit and alternative transportation. But that doesn’t mean we can’t adopt innovative solutions from other areas, too—nor that we shouldn’t listen to the ambitious Millennials who will soon be calling the shots here and elsewhere.

Brian Martucci is The Line's Innovation and Jobs News Editor. Kyle Mianulli is The Line's Development News Editor.
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