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Millennials demand public transportation, but lose out by skipping the voting booth


The Nickel Tour: In the wake of high profile – and unexpected – defeats for public transportation initiatives across the country, we ask: what happened?

On November 2nd, Urbanful put out an article on how millennials’ transportation habits are changing the way cities plan for the future; on November 5th, it became clear that millennial’s voting habits have an equally profound effect on public policy, in the opposite direction.

High profile ballot initiatives on a proposed light rail in Austin, TX and increased funding for transit projects in St. Petersburg and Gainesville, FL went down to defeat amid low voter turnout from 18-29 year olds.

Overall, it was a mixed night for such measures in cities across the country, and results were similarly ambivalent on the state level.

This equivocal outcome for transportation policy would be of little note on an eventful election night had it not conflicted with the trend documented at the beginning of this article as well as preliminary polling.

Access to multimodal transportation and reliable public infrastructure are priorities for millennials. “More than half (54%) of millennials surveyed say they would consider moving to another city if it had more and better options for getting around,” according to a recent report, “and 66% say that access to high quality transportation is one of the top three criteria they would weigh when deciding where to live.”

A poll from the Austin Chronicle had proposition 1, the light rail project, passing 52% to 43% in a city that has attracted a flood of young people in recent years, looking for a mobile, urban lifestyle.

So what explains the surprising defeat? It  likely has something to do with the disconnect between millennials stated priorities and their commitment to bringing these to the voting booth.


Based on recent results, voters between 18-29 are about half as likely to vote in midterms (23%, 2010) as they are in presidential elections (45%, 2012). This trend is supported historically.

Advocates may take solace in the fact that 2016 is a Presidential election year, but if engagement and outreach in future midterms does not change, such optimism will prove unfounded.

The bottom line is, despite the apparent popularity of pro-transportation policies among millennials, individual initiatives will continue to flounder if their most ardent supporters fail to get out and vote.

Images courtesy of Jamelah e, and The Washington Post

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6 Responses to Millennials demand public transportation, but lose out by skipping the voting booth

  1. Stu Nicholson November 5, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    I think part of the problems lies with candidates of either party not making the effort to embrace more and better public transportation as part of their platforms. Transit levies are essentially "faceless" political creatures, so it is difficult for them to generate the same kind of passionate following that a human candidate can develop. I'm not saying this is the major reason for the low turnout of Millennial's, but I do think it accounts for some of it.

  2. Roger Hoffmann November 5, 2014 at 8:34 pm #

    I suspect that the 2014 Election was a "perfect storm" in terms of conditions working against not only transit, but indeed most public interests; whether in terms of candidates or issues.
    1.This and other articles refer to the long-term trend re. mid-term elections, and also of a Party's specific weakness in the 6th year of a Presidency. It's a factor to be reckoned with and addressed.
    2. I haven't seen the data for this year, but I sense a fair amount of disinterest if not alienation among Millennials and youth in general this year. I attribute this in part to what I observed in 2008: the young can get very excited in a Presidential year but do not pay much attention generally to other candidates nor many issues. But that's only part of it; the other part might be dashed hopes stemming from the President's failure to make his Administration reflect the populism implied in his campaign rhetoric.
    3. This will prove to be a record year in terms of private-interest contributions to electoral races, both w/r/t candidates and issues. Unless Citizens United is overturned (e.g. by Constitutional Amendment), this will gradually worsen.
    4. The Democratic Party, becoming more and more a second Republican Party (in terms of deference to money and corporate interests) has squandered much of its political capital and all but peed away the enthusiasm of its core constituencies; i.e. those who truly longed for change towards democracy and believed it was possible. Instead of re-focusing on becoming the Party of the People, perhaps to fight for democracy, it has followed the DLC script, picking candidates who can at least occasionally compete for private interest dollars.

    This last factor is often underestimated if not completely missed by most frequently-quoted analysts. Yet it was palpable where I live. Many already can hardly stand voting for "lesser of evils" (and in some races refrain); while many others seem to reflect a "why bother at all" stance. Public interest advocacy groups certainly have their work cut out for them.

  3. Elson Trinidad November 5, 2014 at 10:02 pm #

    Because Millennials think just shaking political images on Facebook will solve all of our problems.

  4. James Shanley November 6, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    Sad but true.

  5. Hilary Andersen November 17, 2014 at 8:05 pm #

    As a 29 year old Austin resident involved in the group, AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action), we collectively opposed the Austin rail line on this November's ballot because of its design and location (which wouldn't serve as many residents to get to work, etc.) This oversimplification of issues misses the details of the urban rail that local PACs put on our ballot.

  6. Jon Spangler February 27, 2015 at 7:35 pm #

    It seems to take us humans a while to figure out that: a) "all politics is local," and b) that a consistent and significant effort–sometimes over many decades–is required to achieve changes that are worthwhile. Here in the Bay Area, it took cyclists more than 40 years from the time that BART began carrying passengers to be able to take our bikes on BART trains in any direction and at any hour. (I consider myself lucky to have lived long enough to see the day: I was 20 when BART began service in 1972.)

    Transit is significantly underfunded (under subsidized by tax revenues compared to automotive infrastructure) in the USA and we have the paltry public transit service to prove it. It will take many more decades of serious effort to rebalance our transportation funding away from autos and towards more sustainable forms of moving people from place to place. Will we ever get there if we fail to become fully engaged in achieving what we need?

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