In the early part of this decade, transit agencies celebrated the fact that the Millennial generation (those born between 1982 and 1996, according to one definition) were unusually predisposed to use transit and live in urban areas served by transit. TransitCenter’s 2014 Who’s On Board report confirmed that this was the case.
Four years later, however, what do demographics hold for transit? In this guest commentary, consultants Matthew Coogan and Greg Spitz (who worked on that 2014 report) warn that the demographic boost is largely over. Although Millennials still have relatively pro-transit attitudes, they now face the same factors that tend to pull people away from transit—starting families, seeking larger homes, and moving to less-dense neighborhoods. Early this decade, transit agencies benefited from the entrance into the workplace of transit-loving young people. Some of those riders may now “age away” from transit, unless cities and transit agencies adapt.
The National Academy of Sciences, through its Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), has released findings of a major study that examined the role of demographics, market preferences, attitudes, and values on transit choice.
From the research, it’s clear that transit agencies cannot count on sustained millennial ridership in the face of subpar service. Adopting policies that make it easy to take children on transit as well as ensuring transit systems are fully accessible will be critical moving forward.
The study, “Understanding Changes in Demographics, Preferences and Markets for Public Transportation,” has developed a travel demand framework that incorporates both the supply of transportation (“hard” data) and the softer data, which also influence mode choice. The study’s approach is unique because most travel demand modeling has traditionally relied on comparative travel times and travel costs.
The study has found that the age of the traveler is the most important predictor of the candidate demographics. In any given decade, the age group between 20 and 25 will choose transit more often than the group between 25 and 30. This decline with each additional age category is linear until around age 65, where there is a slight rebound into the next older category. In short, people grow away from transit as they age.
To reach these conclusions, the study primarily used an original and comprehensive attitude and stated preference survey (2016), the National Household Travel Survey (from various years but primarily 1995, 2001 and 2009), the Smart Location Database created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the survey data collected by TransitCenter in 2014 as part of its “Who’s On Board” research series.
The older someone is, the further they tend to live from the nearest bus stop and the nearest commercial/village center. But age is a dominant explanatory factor, beyond its effect on residential location.
For example, the study’s analysis revealed that, for any given level of neighborhood transit accessibility, the younger traveler will choose transit more often than the older traveler. And because the interaction between age and location compounds the age effect, the study has concluded that a major demographic shift could greatly affect the transit market over the next three decades. Such a shift is inevitable: according to the Pew Research Center, the millennial generation is now the largest generation in the labor force, and they are expected to outnumber baby boomers by 2019.
This pattern of demographic shift is important for transit policymakers for two reasons. First, the millennial cohort’s dominance will increase over the next two decades. Second, millennial patterns of transit use are quite positive overall. Millennials have a set of attitudes and preferences, including their views toward urbanism and auto dependence, that set them apart from older generations. However, the extent to which millennials will retain these attitudes and market preferences over time is impossible to predict. The graph below shows how the need for and use of the car increases sharply until about 35 years of age, and then plateaus during a period of the life cycle that is difficult for transit.
This shift away from transit isn’t just a prediction from demographers; millennial survey participants themselves make the prediction. While millennials are proceeding through the stages of the life cycle more slowly than previous generations (i.e. later marriages and home buying), they say they expect to move to less-dense locations as their families mature, and that they will take transit less often in future years.
The report makes some conclusions about what transit agencies need to know about how demographics relate to ridership:
- First, use of public transportation is a function of age, regardless of the context. This finding suggests that individual agencies should undertake market research to better understand the priorities and preferences of all age groups.
- Second, transit agencies should learn as much as they can about the values and market preferences of the next generation of people entering the transit market in their early twenties, since they are likely to be transit’s best customers over the coming years. This will help agencies adjust their offerings to better serve a large and aging cohort of millennials in the years to come. Today, we know about the Millennials. Now we must better understand the preferences of Generation Z.
Matthew Coogan is an independent consultant and served as principal investigator for TCRP H-51: Understanding Changes in Demographics, Preferences, and Markets for Public Transportation. A final version of the research report is available here.
Greg Spitz is a Senior Director at RSG, where he focuses on customer research for transit agencies. RSG administered surveys of transit riders for TransitCenter’s Who’s on Board research series.