The Illusive Millennials: Kansas City’s Hunt For The Perfect City Dwellers
Have you heard of the millennials? They are big spenders and transit takers, would rather live downtown, and don’t mind higher taxes. They are every city planner’s dream, and Kansas City is spending taxpayer money on stadiums and streetcars and bar districts to pack them in. The only problem is, this simplified view of Americans ages 25-34 is a mirage, which city planners use selectively to support wasteful government projects.
Contrary to the rhetoric, millennials are relatively immobile and have lower incomes than generations that preceded them. This most likely is an effect of the credit crunch and economic downturn, which has left many millennials without steady incomes to spend or credit to buy new housing.
Also contrary to rhetoric, millennials are not upending the dominance of the car in American travel. In 2000, 5.4 percent of workers ages 16-34 used public transportation for their commutes. In 2010, that number increased to 6.1 percent. That is an increase for sure, but a rather small one considering the expansion of transit systems in the 2000s and the wealth-reducing effects of the recession. The vast majority still drive. Most trends point to a “car light” preference among young people rather than a dramatic move to transit reliance.
When millennials do move, it appears to be for economic reasons, not whether a city is considered cool or has a streetcar. The list of top 20 millennial destinations (of which Kansas City is No. 14), contains some cities with lots of public transportation (Portland, Washington, D.C.), but also many cities that are derided for urban sprawl (Houston, Atlanta, etc.). While the transit correlation may be spurious, all of the cities popular with millennials are among the top performing metro areas in economic growth. The obvious conclusion is that millennials, like the generations that preceded them, chase economic opportunity, not transit. As a millennial who has moved to cities for jobs multiple times, my experience is that the number of sports teams or streetcar lines matters very little in the decision-making process.
If Kansas City planners really want to attract millennials, they will stop trying to make Kansas City cool and focus on creating more opportunity. The millennials will bring the cool with them. Instead, Kansas City officials use a millennial straw man as support for a fabulously wasteful streetcar and other large government projects. And if we believe an author at the Kansas City Star, the only problem is the city hasn’t approved streetcar expansion fast enough. When it comes to looking cool, Kansas City spares no expense. That is, of course, until those millennials buck the plan and want to rideshare with Lyft. Then it’s more important for the city to protect taxi companies than to look cool.