Millenials are a very large demographic group in America, similar in size to the enormous number of baby-boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964.  Millenials, born in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, are 80 million strong and, as such, are a significant political, social, and economic force in the U.S.A.  Between them and the baby boomers, there is a clear majority favoring smaller homes in transit-served communities built for their human users rather than their cars.  Specifically, they want high-quality, rail-based transit, and ‘complete streets’ with calmer traffic and pleasing sidewalks set in neighborhoods where one can walk to the grocery store, library, bank, school, park, and public transportation. 

Parallel Universe of Scandinavian Cities v. Bland American Suburbs

There is an unarticulated desire in America for our cities and towns to be designed more like the European cities of Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Amsterdam.  These cities all feature urban fabrics eminently walkable and bikable, with streets and roads being substantially traffic-thinned through comprehensive mass transit as well as congestion-pricing and other urban policies favoring people over personal automobiles.  The trouble in America today, however, is its’ cities’ almost universal and pervasive dependence on automobiles, apparent in municipal planning codes which essentially mandate sprawl through excessive parking requirements for developers and solidified by the banks in the form of lending guidelines.

Millenials and Their Market Demands

With constrained municipal budgets in many U.S. cities today, urban leaders are looking for ways to attract and hold new residents as well as to raise revenues.  One of the key budget-busting features common to car-dependent, low-density cities is the high cost of providing services like power, water, and public roads; yet receiving far less tax revenues from malls and big-box stores compared to mixed-use communities with higher density development.    In this light, it is fortunate that cities are waking up to the market demands of the Millenials and Baby-Boomers for livable, vibrant, transit-rich communities.  According to a recent survey released by the Rockefeller Foundation and conducted by Transportation for America, a branch of Smart Growth America, two-thirds of Millenials said access to high quality transit was one of the three most important variables in determining where to live.

The Happy Scandinavian Cities

After the refreshing experience of  living in Stockholm last summer, this author can testify to the power of a happy life and what contributes to that happiness.  The city of Stockholm has a superior, 100-station subway system that connects with trams, buses, and bike paths, which themselves are often curb-separated from auto traffic.  In fact, the city has made safe bike passage in and around the city second priority, trailing only walkability in importance; with automobile infrastructure dropping to fifth priority.  Today, Stockholm residents enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, with a graceful flow of connecting neighborhoods and parks with a pleasing blend of entertainment, culture, and residential amenities.  There is a demonstrated rise in stress when driving a car in traffic, so the fact that many Stockholm residents rely on public transit, bikes, and walking instead of primarily on a car testifies to the more relaxed nature of people in this city relative to other cities.  Similarly, Copenhagen, the capital of neighboring Denmark, has a high quality of life, with a superior public infrastructure and pleasing urban design.  Copenhagen’s ranking as the happiest city in the world by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in their second annual World Happiness Report has been linked to social factors such as physical fitness due to its high proportion of residents who rely on bike highways and walking for a majority of their transit.

Hope for the Future of American Cities

Although the wheels of change in American politics and urban policies appear to be slow, innovations at the local level are improving the livability of our urban environments incrementally.  Such examples include the parklet, an urban invention that costs only a few parking spaces at a time but could eventually result in a substantial taking back of our city streets on the order of Copenhagen and Amsterdam.  In New York City, bike lanes and public plazas have taken over some public domains previously devoted to automobiles, and today’s mayor is cutting traffic by reducing speed limits in a bid to eliminate pedestrian deaths.  To the extent cities can reclaim their streets for their human users, urban environments in America can become happier and more prosperous than ever before.