Illustration by Michael Pullano

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bikes and millenials illustration

“You cannot be for a startup, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.”
— Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, quoted in “A Great Day in Chicago: Protected Bike Lanes Open in the Heart of the Loop,” John Greenfield, Grid Chicago

Millennials. They’ve been called a myriad of things: smart, lazy, entitled, selfish, independent and innovative. Generally identified as individuals currently between the ages of 16 and 34, millennials will forever be linked to smartphones, social media, craft beer, food trucks and driving up the price of renting a tiny apartment in many of America’s booming cities as the tech industry makes its mark. But perhaps the most overlooked effect they are having on society is their impact on transportation. Millennials are completely changing how planners and engineers see our streets and how public construction dollars are spent.

Millennials have truly embraced the multimodal mindset of getting around cities, specifically by biking or walking. They are flocking to and filling highly walkable cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York and Washington, DC — urban communities where bike lanes and being able to walk to work take priority over living space and parking. And in order to meet the millennial generation’s demands and continue attracting more transplants, cities are rethinking how they allocate funds for infrastructure. Instead of widening roads and improving highway interchanges, cities are adding bike facilities and better sidewalks. For the first time in history, bike lanes and walking scores are crucial to a city’s economic development, as urban areas grapple with how to draw and keep new millennial residents.

Millennials no longer view driving a car as a necessity but rather a convenience. According to the US Public Interest Research Group’s report “A New Way to Go: The Transportation Apps and Vehicle-Sharing Tools That Are Giving More Americans Freedom to Drive Less,” millennials have shown a healthy decline in automobile use since 2000, driving 23% less. In the same time frame, bike commuting has increased by 60%, and 10% since 2011, potentially fueled by the large millennial population’s desire to get to work without a car. In an effort to live greener, healthier lifestyles, millennials are much more likely than past generations to consider a wide variety of transportation options, most notably transit, walking or biking, reducing their carbon footprints. In addition, biking has become “cool” again — part of the new urban subculture for the hip and trendy.

The recent surge in bicycle commuting and walking correlates with the number of working millennials living in our urban cores, and the trend of funding bicycle and pedestrian projects has followed. According to the Federal Highway Administration website, since 2000 funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects from the Federal-Aid Highway Program has continued to rise. In 2000, $296.7 million was obligated to 971 bicycle and pedestrian projects. By 2010, funding had surpassed $1 billion, accounting for over 3,000 bicycle and pedestrian projects. Since then, funding has remained high, averaging approximately $773 million each year since.

Perhaps the relationship between the growth of millennial populations and demand for bikable urban centers is most evident in one of the most booming US cities today. Known as a modern day millennial magnet, Seattle saw a 5.7% increase in residents aged 20 to 29 from 2010 to 2013, according to data from the US Census. Today, adults between the ages of 25 and 34 form the largest age group in Seattle, with millennials representing over 31% of the population, well above the national average. Since 2005, bike commuting in Seattle has increased 78%; the number of people walking to work has increased 44%, while driving alone has decreased 14%. It’s no coincidence that these changes have coincided with a major portion of the millennial generation graduating from college and entering the workforce. With Seattle leading the charge with new protected bike lanes, greenways, trails and bike sharing, Washington also has the highest percentage of transportation projects benefiting bicyclists and pedestrians in the nation.

Besides Seattle, cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, DC, have announced plans to increase spending on biking infrastructure due to demand (see the “Bicycling” section on the City of Chicago’s website and Will Reisman’s San Francisco Examiner article “San Francisco Lays Out $200 Million in Bike Projects in Next 5 Years,” for example). These cities share important commonalities: They’ve made tremendous strides in recent years to ramp up bicycle facility improvements, and they plan to add more. They also rank among the cities with the best bicycle commuter rates and have larger than average millennial populations that continue to grow.

There is support for and opposition against bicycle projects in every city, but one thing is clear: today, the most desirable, progressive, thriving US cities are multimodal and implement innovative solutions for bicyclists. Even cities not known for their bicycle commutability, like Los Angeles, are feverishly planning to install more bike lanes so that they don’t become outpaced by other millennial boomtowns.

Millennials are trendsetters. They are constantly both an inspiration and annoyance to society. However you look at it, they have become a major force in shaping our cities, policies and planning decisions, and they are a prime consideration when cities decide how to spend money on transportation infrastructure. Perhaps that’s the one trend that will not be going out of style any time soon.