Active Transportation: Try It Before You Buy It

Back in November I examined how millennials are the key to sustainable transportation. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, and ZipCar are taking off. Mass transit continues to see increasing ridership. Active transportation – typically walking and biking but also including skateboarding, rollerblading, etc. – is also increasing. Choosing to walk or bike to work is not like other lifestyle changes. It takes a significant effort. Time and energy must be invested. Screen time will be sacrificed. If a person is fully committed, active transportation means lifestyle change. It means re-imagining what appropriate travel times and distances are. It may affect a person’s social life, although perhaps not always in the expected way. With so much effort and change, how do we convince millennials active transportation is worth the effort?

Grant on a Rivendell Bicycle.

Grant on a Rivendell Bicycle.

I was thinking about this shortly before sitting down to catch up on my Adventure Cycling magazine subscription. In the Oct./Nov 2014 issue Adevnture Cycling interviews Grant Peterson of Rivendell Bicycle Works, a small bike manufacturing company. Grant says he founded Rivendell on the concept of “unracing” or “riding your bike free of the influences of pro racing”:

“To the unracer, a cross-town commute counts as much as a romp on the trails or a tour down the coast,” he writes. “There’s no hierarchy or score card. You don’t get unracer points for being car free, or for pedaling your family across town at night in a sleet storm to go shopping. If it’s miserable or treacherous out and you have a car, drive it. Unracing is practical, not a religion.”

It sounds like Grant and I are on the same page. The answer to increasing active transportation is simple: tell people they do not have to commit. These days most people can access limitless information which means they can always find out about products and services before even trying them. Millennials are especially interested in trying before buying in many aspects of life. They research products and the competition. They move around for a few years, trying out different jobs, cities, and lifestyles. Hell, the try it before you buy it mentality applies to a whole lot of lifestyle choices…think about it. For the generation growing up with Google, having all the options is part of life. We like to taste everything before we make a choice. So why do we demand people jump all-in to active transportation? Commitment is key.

At the UW Riding in the Rain event a few months ago Andy Clarke spoke to precisely this issue when he lovingly poked fun at the whole Bike to Work challenge. “Why do we force people to commit to their longest, hardest trip for a month?” Clarke asked. Why not ‘Bike to the Store’ or ‘Bike to a Meet A Friend’ or anything that does not require a big change? He even joked that some Bike to Work events are organized for Thursdays – why not Friday? “I guess it does not count if you get to bike in your casual attire” he quipped. “It really does not make sense.”

As if committing to a long ride was not enough, Cascade Bicycle Club Executive Director Elizabeth Kiker warned of the danger of the intense cycling culture. “Cyclists need to stop with all this scary tribe stuff. Sometimes it is like you have to take a blood oath.” If you don’t ride in the rain, don’t have the right bike, or don’t wear the right clothing you are doing it wrong. You’re treated like an outsider.And don’t get us started on if you have an electric bike…

I happen to agree, which is why I asked the question that led to those responses:

“I [an obvious millennial]work part-time for Pronto Cycle Share and what I always do is try to sell people on the fact that they can give it a try. I love handing out free 24 hour passes. We [millennials] are the product of the information age – we can Google anything and research all the options before committing. And it’s not just products – we move around, get a taste for different cities – I am the perfect example. We love to try before we buy. Knowing this, how can we leverage the ‘try before you buy’ mentality for for sustainable transportation?”

The panel gave a variety of answers about student transportation, bikeshare, infrastructure, and more. One suggestion I enjoyed for its simplicity and truth:

Introduce bikes to a friend. Ask them to ride with you. Offer to teach them.

Walking in an urban environment can appear time-consuming and stressful. Biking can be scary and difficult. I know plenty of people who occasionally go to parks specifically to walk or bike. And I know even more who use to walk or bike at some point in the life, but no longer do. Most people did as children. If we could all do it once, we can do it again. To all my walking, cycling, rollerblading, skateboarding, scootering, or otherwise actively moving readers: I challenge you to introduce a new friend, colleague, or family member to your favorite mode of transportation. Help them learn and feel comfortable. It might start as a ride around a local park or a walk to the store. Do it enough and who knows – maybe in a year or two they will be teaching one of their friends. And THAT is how change happens, our way. The people’s way.

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Millennials: The Key to Sustainable Transportation

Today’s young people simply are not as obsessed with cars as previous generations. In the last 25 years car new vehicle purchases fell about 11 percent among adults ages 21-34. Even more shocking, the number of teenagers with licenses decreased by over a quarter from 1998 to 2008. Miles driven are down too. So, why are millennials forgoing personal automobiles? The better question may be why not?

LifestyleMillennials are flocking to urbanized areas where public transportation, biking, and walking are generally viable modes of transportation. This influx affects the demand for jobs, housing, services, and connectivity. Real estate developers are catering to (and profiting from) a new demand for modern, hip housing in lively neighborhoods with easy access to work, shopping, and nightlife. More and more neighborhoods are becoming increasingly walkable. With increasing population densities comes increased traffic congestion – driving short trips just does not make sense. And that does not even consider the cost of owning a car in urban cores. Here in Seattle monthly parking can run up to $250 in the most expensive lots and parking on the street is not cheaper either.

Options. New businesses like Car2Go and ZipCar add convenience to transportation by providing young people with access to cars when they need personal transportation, but do it without the extra costs of insurance, parking, and maintenance. Bikeshare systems are popping up in cities and towns around the country. Taxi’s still roam the streets but new companies like Lyft and Uber offer stiff competition.

Technology. All of these new transportation hinge on one key component: the smart phone. Don’t know the cab number? Just open your Uber App and a car will pick you up in minutes. Miss the bus? Pull up your Car2Go app and find the nearest available car. Think the sun deserves a nice bike ride? Open Spotcycle and see if bikeshare bikes are available near you.With access to limitless information and a slew of convenience options just seconds away, millennials care more about their phones than other physical possessions. And with so many communication options millennials can stay in touch with their friends without ever needing to leave the house.

Previously, urbanization also meant suburbanization as people flocked to cities for employment but desired to live in quieter suburbs where their children could get a quality education. demand for suburban housing also meant demand for roads. When the roads became congested we widened them to alleviated traffic but this only lead to more congestion through induced demand. Now, however, young people are increasingly looking to live within city limits where they have unparalleled access to amenities and culture. Millennials are delaying parenthood longer than any prior generation so quality schools are less important. Driving is a hassle and it takes away from valuable screen time (I this was more true but clearly many people drive and use cell phones).

Personal automobiles no longer meet the needs of increasingly connected young adults. The key to sustainable urban transportation is recognizing that millennials’ lifestyle preferences, need for options, and affinity for technology drive development. Next week I will examine the “try it before you buy it” approach to active transportation that can be the key to hooking new millennials.

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