It's no secret that Wisconsin business owners want young workers to move to the state. A $1 million marketing campaign asked Chicago millennials to consider all they time they lose riding trains and buses to work in an attempt to lure them to cities like Milwaukee and Madison.
"Rush hour or happy hour?" the advertisements read, with images of unhappy young people riding mass transit. "An hour commute or an hour with friends?"
But according to a new survey by Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group, many millennials in Wisconsin are drawn to places where they don’t have to use a car. If the state wants to attract and retain millennials, it should invest accordingly in alternatives modes of transportation, the report argues.
That Chicago ad campaign from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation “missed the mark,” the report says, because “public transit represents high quality of life for many young people today.”
WISPIRG hosted a press conference Tuesday morning announcing the report, titled “Millennials on the Move.” The report relied on a survey — for which participants were not scientifically selected — of over 600 college students at 24 Wisconsin college campus throughout the 2017-2018 school year.
The survey found that having ways to get around without a car was very important to students, and could even affect where they chose to live.
Three quarters of respondents said it was either “very” or “somewhat” important to live in a place with “options for getting around besides driving” after graduation; 55 percent of respondents said they would be “somewhat more” or “much more” likely to stay in the state after graduation if they didn’t need a car to get around.
That’s the case for Adin Berger, a UW-Madison freshman. Berger talked about growing up in New Jersey with easy access to a subway system for shorter trips and an Amtrak train for longer journeys to New York and Washington, D.C.
“In Madison, I love having the ability to walk anywhere on campus or take the bus,” Berger said. “But it’s frustrating how difficult it is for me to leave Madison without a car.”
“If Wisconsin is serious about attracting younger generations here, we need an easily accessible public transportation system and to prove we care about taking care of the environment,” he said. “After graduation, I want to live in area where I do not feel that driving is the only way to get around.”
The WISPIRG survey results are in line with other surveys from around the country, also cited in the report. A 2014 Rockefeller Foundation survey of 10 cities found 54 percent of respondents, aged 18 to 34, would consider moving to a different city with superior transportation options. A National Association of Realtors survey found millennials are “more likely than older generations to prioritize walkability and a short commute to work.”
And even though the vast majority of respondents to the WISPIRG survey reported that they planned to own a car after graduating, 85 percent said it was “very” or “somewhat” important to avoid or cut down on car costs like gas, insurance, maintenance and parking.
For baby boomers, owning a car meant freedom and spontaneity, said Emma Fisher, a WISPIRG Foundation organizer and lead author of the report. But for millennials, cars are “increasingly seen as a burden,” she said.
“The message today is this: car culture no longer represents the American Dream for many young people,” Fisher said.
The report argues that Wisconsin needs to stop concentrated spending on highway expansions and instead invest in public transportation, walking and biking infrastructure, and bus and rail networks.
That’s especially important now as the governor and legislators put together the state budget, Fisher said.
“We should stop wasting resources on highway expansions that are unlikely to meet tomorrow's needs,” she said.
This is not the first time WISPIRG has made these points. The group conducted a similar survey in 2014. Asked if a new governor changes how hopeful she is that these recommendations could become realities, Fisher said “this year could be a turning point for how Wisconsin thinks about transportation spending.”
Hopefully, that will entice more millennials to stick around. UW-Madison data from 2007 to 2017 cited in the report shows that while almost 80 percent of alumni originally from Wisconsin stuck around after a bachelor’s degree, only 11 percent of students from other states stayed in Wisconsin after graduation.
But retaining millennials is far from the only benefit of an improved multimodal transportation system, the report says. Among the other benefits: improving transit options will make it easier for a growing senior population to remain mobile and independent and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions from cars. And improving a city’s transportation systems is especially important for people of color and low-income communities, the report said.
A separate recent report agreed, arguing that a lack of sufficient investment in public transportation in Wisconsin puts seniors, people with disabilities and low incomes, and communities of color at a disadvantage. Cities around the state need public transportation systems that run more frequently, with extended hours of operation, and that run closer to major employment hubs, schools, hospitals and the like, that report said.
The report looks at several areas around the state, including Madison, that are seeing their efforts to improve transportation pay off, Fisher said, “attracting young people at higher rates than the rest of the state.”
Madison was one example of this, and earned praise on several fronts: a top five bike friendly city in the U.S., a relatively high percentage of residents who walk or bike to work and a popular Madison Metro transit system. It notes that in 2015, millennials made up 26.8 percent of the population. However, the report also pointed to areas of potential improvement like the need for a Bus Rapid Transit system.