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One Thing Millennials Aren't Killing? Public Transportation

Public transportation is one thing many millennials, and their younger counterparts in Gen Z, are trying to save.
Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Public transportation is one thing many millennials, and their younger counterparts in Gen Z, are trying to save.

Advocates for public transportation often promote practical advantages: affordability, accessibility, environmental friendliness, reduced traffic jams.

But Michelle Santa Maria, 24, likes it for a different reason.

"I just I feel like it's so cute," she says.

It's "cute" when when bus drivers greet her in the morning, or when she makes eye contact with a fellow passenger to see who will press the button to signal their stop, she says. It's clear that public transit means more to Santa Maria than just a way to get from Point A to Point B.

She's just one of the many young people who aren't as car crazy as members of their parents' or grandparents' generation. According to a University of Michigan study, the number of people under 30 with driver's licenses has been steadily declining.

Santa Maria belongs to a public transit fan page on Facebook, called New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens, with more than 200 thousand members. They call themselves NUMTOTS — and they share funny posts but also they debate transportation policies and fantasize about a world in which nobody needs a car.

Santa Maria is an optician in Boston and she sold her car when she moved there. She still goes into the office during the pandemic, but even if she didn't need to, she says she would still ride the train because she can explore the city and it makes her feel less lonely.

"I feel like I wouldn't own a car again. It's just like public transportation can literally do so much" said Santa Maria.

Millennials are often blamed for "killing" things. Whether it's golf, mayonnaise, vacations, or marriage — it's become almost a cliché.

However, public transportation is one thing many millennials, and their younger counterparts in Gen Z, are trying to save.

But the pandemic has been crushing to public transit systems across the country. Drops in ridership have led to budget cuts and service rollbacks, which means a lot of trains and buses are coming less frequently, if at all.

"To be honest, it's infuriating," says William Clark, 25, who lives in Philadelphia. Clark is one of the moderators of the NUMTOTS Facebook group, and he grew up riding public transit. He worries about transit workers as well as the commuters who ride buses and subways because they have no alternative.

"When you reduce the amount of service, you have to pack more people into fewer vehicles, so it leads to a higher possibility of contracting COVID. It's actually pretty scary," said Clark.

He works from home now, so he isn't riding the train anymore. But he's trying to support the public transit system in other ways. He's a member of a transit riders' union in Philadelphia where he says he advocates for the needs of riders who are unable to attend public meetings.

Across the country, Alex Lee, 25, is advocating for transit in San Jose, Calif. He got himself elected to the state assembly and appointed to the Transportation Committee.

"I am really grateful to be a NUMTOT elected official, as weird as it is," said Lee.

In office, he wants to work on solutions to make funding for public transit less dependent on transit fares. He says the Bay Area's public transit is so tied to the farebox that as ridership evaporated so did the funding.

"If you start cutting transit then you're really hurting the people that depend on it most, right? People who don't have access to cars, or people who rely on these literal life bloods to get to and from work and a lot of these are essential service workers," said Lee.

Tenzin Chophel, 27, used to be one of those essential workers. He was an ICU nurse in Boston until he moved to Vermont, in part, because of how bad his commute had gotten. Sometimes when he rode the train it took him nearly three hours to get home, and biking wasn't much better.

"During the winter months, it got especially wretched trying to navigate between various cars, and people's different interpretations of traffic laws," said Chophel. "I don't feel like dying young."

Some NUMTOTS see a light at the end of the tunnel as a result of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. After all, the new president's nickname is "Amtrak Joe," and Clark points to Biden's climate change initiatives.

"Since Joe Biden has endorsed part of the Green New Deal, at least in terms of its climate goals, I'm hoping that we'll see new investments in transit in the future," said Clark.

Simon Husted, 30, lives in Buffalo, N.Y., and he says the small town background of Biden's new transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, is a plus.

"Transit isn't just, you know, a New York City, San Francisco, L.A., and Chicago issue. It is every city's issue. We have people who rely on public transit here in Buffalo, and also Syracuse and Rochester and Albany, and they shouldn't be just discounted," said Husted.

But not everyone is as optimistic about the new president or the new transportation secretary, who at 39 is a millennial himself.

"I'm still filled with dread," said Chophel.

He worries that for Buttigieg it will be another line his resume, instead of a chance to make substantive change to the nation's transit systems.

"It just seems like such a little consolation prize for him. 'Oh, here you go. Pete, like, here's a little pat on the head. Here's a little transportation nomination for you. You can put it up on the fridge and frame it,'" said Chophel.

Chophel wants leaders in transportation to not just be millennials, but to think like millennials. And that means not thinking like politicians from previous generations who promised major upgrades to public transit systems and never delivered.

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Emma Peaslee is a 2020-21 Kroc Fellow. Before coming to NPR, she reported for Atlanta's member station, WABE. She covered public forums about toxic chemicals leaking into neighborhoods, the world's largest 10K race, and the federal government's plan to resume executions. Peaslee has a master's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where her work received the 2020 Edward R. Murrow Award for best student newscast. She is a Minnesota native.