New Stats: What Boomers and Millennials Want in Cities

May 6, 2014 at 6:55 am EDT

Markets are not democracies. While majorities are important, they’re not the only thing that’s important. Sizeable minorities matter, too. So I read with great interest three surveys that came out last week about livability, one from AARP, one from the American Planners Association, and one from the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America. I should mention that two of our advisory board members were involved in these projects: Rodney Harrell from AARP is a leader of its survey efforts and also had a hand in the APA survey, as did Ellen Dunham-Jones.

Aging Millennials and aging Baby Boomers were the focus of most of the findings, which makes a lot of sense. They are two enormous generations. Millennials make up about 80 million Americans, and the Boomer generation, at its peak, was just shy of that size. They’re both going through some serious demographics changes these days. Each day 10,000 Boomers turn 65 and gain their senior-citizenship. Also each day, 12,000 Millennials turn 30 and enter the decade where they’re starting to do all of those things that previous generations did in their 20s like get married, buy homes and have kids. In fact, the birth rate is projected to be on the uptick for the first time since 2007 – driven by moms in their 30s and beyond.

Note: As has always been the case, no one ever cares about my generation, the Gen-Xers stuck in the middle of these two groups.

But generational bitterness aside, where were we? Right. What do these two groups at very different life stages have in common in terms of what they’re looking for in choosing a place to live? Let’s look at these studies (and our own livability research and survey work) and see what we can come up with.

The Rockefeller/Transportation for America survey talked to Millennials in 10 cities with “mature,” “growing,” or “aspiring” transit systems. Overall, almost half of current vehicle owners say they would like to give up their cars if they felt they could rely on public transit to get around. For many, economics were driving that desire. In places with great public transit like Chicago and New York, only 27 percent of Millennials think they need to have “regular access” to a car or truck. In “aspiring” cities like Nashville and Tampa, that number climbs to 82 percent. But more importantly, about eight in 10 say that it’s important for their cities to offer non-car alternatives to getting around.

All of this seems to jibe nicely with the APA’s survey, which also found a lot of pro-transit sentiment. Its survey was a broader sample – not limited to city dwellers – and found that a slim majority of Millennials and a near majority of “active Boomers” would prefer to live in a “walkable” community (regardless of city size). Overall, respondents say that quality of life is more important than economic factors in choosing a place to live. Majorities of both generations say there are not enough car-alternatives where they live. Almost no one wanted to live in car-centric suburbs.

Finally, AARP’s survey is part of its work to create a Livability Index, something we know a thing or two about ourselves. Its survey found, among other things, that older Americans want to be near a bus stop, grocery store, drug store, and park. Less important was being within a mile of a hospital or church and not really important at all was being near a mall. That makes sense. If you’re near a bus stop, you don’t need to be as near all of the places a bus will take you – provided there’s a good transit infrastructure (see above). Older Americans, according to the survey, also want more cops, better schools, walkable streets and transit.

What are some takeaways from all of this research and from our own?

One is that both groups want transportation options: more and better. They want walkability and access to amenities without needing to be reliant on cars. In our survey, we asked people to rank items as well as just declare them all important.

But I think it’s also important to look at the flip-side of stats. Take this one: 60 percent of respondents want to be able to stay in their current homes as they age. That’s a big, important number in the APA survey. But it also means that 40 percent don’t want that – a huge number and something for cities to consider. Will they be places that aging Americans leave or places that respond to the needs of aging Americans and attract this huge population as it moves. Also, half say they don’t feel their communities are doing enough to make that possible – which means even more might move.

The Rockefeller study points out that income is a huge factor in Millennials not wanting to own a car. So what happens as they enter their peak earning years just as the economy is improving? Will public transit continue to be as important?

All of this is to say that a stat about “75 percent of Millennials” leaves 20 million Americans in the “small minority.” Generations are hard to characterize, and it’s best to think of both the majority and the minority opinion as your cities.

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