Think "millennials," and a host of images pop up: smart phones, tattoos, an affection for craft beer, and an allergy to owning cars. This generation of young people, roughly 14 to 34, is the subject of intense research from marketers to demographers, all trying to determine how they will impact our culture.
And all they want it is bike lanes. At least, that's what the head of a downtown business coalition in the millennial-hub of Denver thinks. In an interview with the Denver Business Journal last year, Downtown Denver Partnership President Tami Door said the city's burgeoning tech sector is having a hard time attracting young workers because they want to bike to work.
"The number one thing they want is bike lanes. Ten years ago we never would have thought that walkability or bike lanes would be economic development tools," she said.
Door makes it sound deceptively simple. I confess that I am not a millennial (squarely GenX, thank you), but I still think most people go to cities for jobs, not for bike lanes. Yet I am told by millennials who live in Denver that Door isn't overstating the issue. Jennifer Hill, a housing researcher with the Sonoran Institute in Colorado, told me that she and her husband selected their apartment in Denver based largely on whether they could bike or walk to work.
This tells me that Door is probably right that urban planning aimed at fulfilling the needs of the next generation of workers—in this case by giving them bike lanes—can be a boon to a city's economic development generally. She also isn't alone. The Pew Charitable Trusts recently asserted that the bike craze erupting in cities is specifically designed to attract millennials. "Communities across the country are weighing similar routes, believing that a cycling-friendly reputation will help them attract millennials and the creative and economic energy that comes with them," author Tim Henderson said.
Certainly, the research supports Door's maxim that if you build bike paths, sidewalks, and car-free malls, the millennials will come. Three of the nation's top cities for millennials—Washington D.C., Denver, and Seattle—all boast fairly extensive campaigns to encourage biking. (For an interesting look at the growth of bike lanes in Washington, check out this interactive map from Greater Greater Washington.)
Millennials' lifestyles are more conducive to biking. They are more likely to congregate in cities. Almost one-third of them (32 percent) live in central cities, according to the Pew Research Center. They are more likely to exercise, especially the men. Almost two-thirds of millennial men (63 percent) surveyed by Pew said they did some form of vigorous exercise in the past 24 hours. That's compared with 46 percent of the overall population.
What's more, they are less likely to own cars. From 2007 to 2011, the number of cars purchased by people aged 18 to 34 fell almost 30 percent, and according to a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. They aren't eager to get driver's licenses. In 2011, the percentage of 16-24 year olds who had driver's licenses fell to its lowest percentage since 1963 at 67 percent, according to the Public Interest Research Group.
One key component of millennial urban planning that Door did not mention is transit, a critical need for any city resident who doesn't want to drive. Seattle is in the middle of a war of wills on this one, with residents of its center city overwhelmingly voting in April to increase sales taxes by 1 cent to preserve the current bus system. The folks in the surrounding counties voted against the proposal. It will be on the ballot again in November. For an example of progressive millennial ranting on this topic, see this article. (Warning: Bad language.)
Here's my problem with the focus on biking and transit when it comes to pleasing millennials—it can't be the only factor. Businesses still need to anchor in cities to make their economies thrive. And unless those coveted employers are in retail, their biggest concern is overhead costs. (Retail employers tend to value access to customers slightly higher than overhead costs). If a city can't help the businesses stay solvent, all the bike lanes in the world aren't going to make it healthy economically.
For our insiders: How do bike lanes impact car traffic in cities? Do they fundamentally change the city's economy? Do a city's residents drive less when bike lanes are available? Do mass transit options have a bigger impact on traffic? What are the benefits of bike lanes? The disadvantages? Is it true that bike lanes tend to be used more by younger people? If so, is that a good thing? What alternative transportation modes are the most important in attracting business to a city?
[Note: This is a moderated blog on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular commenter.]
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