Greater Cincinnati Can’t Ignore Millennials’ Demand for Public Transportation

Our region has some great neighborhoods—built for boomers like my 60-something car-centric contemporaries and me. We were “The Beach Boys Generation,” raised on the allure of the fast car and the open road. 

But boomers are no longer what communities need to prosper. The new Holy Grail is the millennial generation—born between 1980 and the early 2000s and the best-educated generation ever. Employers are competing for those younger, highly skilled workers, and they will move and invest where those millennials can be found.

Millennials have no romantic attachment to their parents’ T-Birds and Mustangs. Cars are just expensive chunks of metal, with spiraling costs for insurance, parking and repairs. That’s why annual U.S. miles driven peaked in 2006. Millennials are looking for walkable, urban neighborhoods and convenient and comfortable public transportation to get to work, not an office up Interstate 71 with acres of free parking.

Employers have noticed. 

Marriott recently announced it was relocating its suburban Maryland corporate HQ, and looking for space near a DC Metro stop, so it can continue attracting the skilled workers it needs to succeed. 

Regions that want to keep growing are acting on this increasing preference for quality public transit:

• Denver and Phoenix are investing in new rail lines to attract millennials and businesses. 

• In North Carolina, the Research Triangle Park will soon be linked to Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill by light rail. 

• A new rail line recently launched in Orange County/Orlando, Fla. has made great old neighborhoods like Winter Park and College Park all the more attractive.

• In Pittsburgh, you can ride the T light rail line and linked buses for free in the Central Business District.

Southwest Ohio communities will be playing catch-up if they choose to compete for these college-educated millennials. What passes for public transit in our town is Queen City Metro, a regional transportation system in name only, funded by an earnings tax of 3/10 of 1 percent paid only by those who live or work in the City of Cincinnati. In 2002 Hamilton County taxpayers rejected an ambitious Metro Moves initiative that would have funded several light rail and streetcar lines and expanded bus service. What remains is the same old 1970s-era vestigial bus system, with inscrutable routes and slow, hit-or-miss service. It is a transportation safety net of last resort, designed for folks who can’t afford cars.

The counterpoint is Cincinnati’s controversial streetcar, scaled back after attacks from the Tea Partiers at COAST, and subject to ongoing sniping from Mayor John Cranley. The mayor and Councilman Chris Smitherman relentlessly use the streetcar as a wedge issue, suggesting that the desire for better public transit is an affront to lower-income citizens, forced for decades to ride those funky Metro buses. 

But the streetcar has already proven that investment in public transit makes good things happen. General Electric picked a downtown location for its new U.S. Global Operations Center. GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt recently told the Enquirer that Cincinnati’s downtown “provides many of the amenities that help us attract and retain great talent.” One of those amenities will be the streetcar.

All along those new rails, investors are planting new apartments, restaurants and retail. They are building just the type of pedestrian-friendly urban space to work and live that millennials reputedly prefer.

Rather than whip up resentment about what’s happening in downtown or in Over-the-Rhine, local officials should be talking about how to improve transit options all over town. We can’t afford to assume this is just a fad and that the post-millennial generation will suddenly re-discover muscle cars and the Beach Boys.