Britten Cleveland graduated from college hoping to work in a big city where she could live without a car.
Instead, her first job, as a community organizer for the Sierra Club, landed her in Pinellas. The county’s threadbare bus network made it almost impossible for the 29-year-old to get around without a car, the cost of which now eats a hefty $400 per month out of her paycheck.
“I spend a ridiculous amount of money on gas,” she said. “A car is more of a burden to someone my age.”
Cleveland is a millennial — a tech-savvy generation of some 70 million Americans born between 1982 and 2003 who studies show favor urban living over the suburban white picket-fenced homes cherished by previous generations.
Communities that want to attract that generation will need to make major investments in transportation, according to Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that promotes public mass transit.
With Pinellas County in the midst of a heated debate over whether to invest in mass transit, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority leaders invited Grisby to present the findings of an APTA study that shows 40 percent of millennials do not own a car and that even those who do frequently use other forms of transportation.
The study is based on a telephone survey of 1,000 18- to 32-year-olds in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Washington, D.C.
Grisby said communities across the United States are already reaping benefits from investments in public transport, which he said spurs economic development, boosts property values and leads to redevelopment around bus and train stations. Communities that provide links from airports see convention business increase and hotel room rates rise, he said.
His appearance at a meeting last week was part of a push by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to promote Greenlight Pinellas, a plan to expand the county’s bus network by 65 percent, build a light-rail linking Clearwater, the Gateway area and St. Petersburg, and to add bus rapid transit to local roads. Pinellas voters will decide in a Nov. 4 referendum whether to approve a penny sales tax hike to pay for the $2.2 billion, 30-year plan.
Critics, including the No Tax for Tracks group, argue the county’s roads are not overburdened and say population projections do not show the county growing enough to support mass transit.
Grisby said communities smaller than Pinellas such as Sacramento, Calif., and Salt Lake City have already successfully invested in mass transit.
Sacramento’s population is just more than half of Pinellas County’s 921,000. Yet it has 68 bus routes and 38 miles of light rail compared to PSTA’s 40 bus routes.
Salt Lake City has an extensive bus service, a 45-mile light-rail network and commuter rail for its population of 190,000.
“They’re not the biggest city in the world, and they are reaping the benefit of those investments,” Grisby said.
The survey wasn’t all good news for transit advocates. Millennials listed driving a car as their favorite transportation option and even walking polled ahead of taking a subway or light rail.
“No one is talking about giving up the car,” Grisby said. “Our research shows that millennials do like cars — what makes them different is they understand some trips would best be taken using other modes of travel.”