The trains that could

Look Back At It

Zoe Kleinfeld_online

To receive a driver’s license in the state of California, applicants must be at least 16 years of age with parental permission, or else wait until they are 18 years old. They must provide a car for the drivers test. Nothing else is required.

I didn’t get my license until I was 18 years old. Considering that I grew up in San Diego (a coastal concrete jungle of intertwined highways, infrastructural mazes and barely existent public transport), considering that most of my friends received their licenses at the age of 16 and considering that independence, for me, was highly correlated with my ability to autonomously explore my small pocket of Southern California, my inability to drive during high school seemed, at the time, a formative hindrance to my maturation.

This insight is accentuated by the fact that I have total ease traveling as an urbanite in Berkeley. I use Uber and Lyft if public transportation is even slightly inconvenient, I use public transportation for lengthier distances and I walk — but not far. The point is that I am unfettered by the nuances of independently arranging for transportation means, on account of the fact that my urban location affords me the ability to take advantage of my ridesharing and local public transportation systems.

While many millennials choose to move to cities, data suggest that they specifically choose to move to suburban areas surrounding those cities. In the midst of a seismic shift in the way that young people’s work life comes to be defined — as not nine-to-five — one trend is more salient than others for my generation: Our personal and labor lives are increasingly mediated by technological advances. Demographic changes, coupled with the rise of sharing economy options, seem to be paving a new path for the way that young people travel. In a study of urbanites’ traveling habits, researchers found that the more people use shared services like Lyft and Uber, the more likely they are to use public transportation.

Public transportation is integral to modern cities’ expansion, to the growth of domestic labor markets and to sustained internal economic welfare. In light of ridesharing apps and considering that car ownership and driving have declined over the last two decades, city planners ought to focus on accelerating progress toward a common goal: providing more mobility for more residents, while holding themselves accountable to the operations and integrity of their transit systems. Planners are quick to cite the importance of expanding existing public transportation systems to accommodate a larger demographic of riders. But expanding any city system will only be effective insofar as the preexisting system is fully functional.

For example, since construction of BART began in the 1960s, there have been few updates to its infrastructure. According to Ratna Amin — director of transportation policy at the Bay Area planning nonprofit SPUR — a lot of the system equipment in place has never been replaced.

“BART was cutting-edge when it was built,” Amin said, in response to a recent BART system failure. “But being cutting-edge only lasts so long.”

I and other young people will enter a rapidly evolving workforce defined by increased independence and flexibility for workers and employers, alike. As a result, media outlets and policymakers are quick to wax rhetoric about how the glorious reality of a multiethnic metropolis is rapidly diminishing in light of new, emerging industries and expanded urban sites. This is partly true — but it is also not a holistic tale. The other side to an evolving story of the youngster and travel is that which grapples to reconcile decrepit public transportation systems with increased ridership.

Such is the story of public transit as it has always been a story of public transit in America: a series of systems that are at once cumbersome and integral to economic development. As inner cities are increasingly expensive, as more young people move to the outskirts of major cities and rely on public transportation as a sole means of travel to and from work, cities will need to more appropriately respond to increased — and increasing — ridership from young people. A handful of towns have already recognized that they need to construct easily accessible city centers in order to appeal to millennials. Neighborhoods in Long Island, New York and Bethesda, Maryland, and other places, have begun to incorporate train stations with pedestrian-friendly streetscapes in their downtown development plans.

This, however, does not undermine the onus of public transportation officials to refurbish metro systems. Though ridesharing apps currently fill public transits’ gaps, system expansion ought to be the primary objective for city planners. I can only posit that the widespread introduction of ridesharing applications such as Uber and Lyft might radically reformulate the adolescent maturation of suburban schoolchildren. But ridesharing is not an economically sustainable, low-cost model — and as such, metro stations will need to alter their efforts to support a new expanding metropolis.

Zoe Kleinfeld writes the Wednesday blog on kids these days. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zkleinfeld.