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Opinion: The “American Dream” is changing — It’s time to wake up to that

Neil Button Neil Button Opinion: The “American Dream” is changing — It’s time to wake up to thatLight rail image via Wikipedia.
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With the end of 2014 in sight, Columbus remains the largest city in the United States without any form of rail transit. We’re also in 45th place out of America’s 52 largest cities in terms of per capita spending on bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure, according to the Alliance for Biking & Walking. In the face of a $2.5 billion highway construction season, the message from our state government is clear: public transportation isn’t a priority. The car is king.

“I think there’s a bit of stigma against not having a car,” says Lea Ulintz, a first-year Public Health student at the Ohio State University. “It’s just how everyone gets around. You’re kind of expected to have one.”

She has a point. Since the Ford Model T, car ownership has been an essential part of the American Dream. It’s a phenomenon documented by journalist Paul Ingrassia, who wrote a book detailing how different cars have helped define and shape American culture. They’ve played major roles in popular movies and TV shows including The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fast and the Furious series. Cars are the default mode of getting around for even pop culture’s dysfunctional families – when was the last time you saw Homer Simpson use the bus?

Both our elected leaders and American popular culture assume that everyone wants to drive, but consumer behavior tells us a different story. Last year, the American Public Transit Association found its highest public transit ridership in 57 years, while in October, the Ohio Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released a report finding that the shifting demands towards alternative transportation are even more pronounced among young people. For instance, Millennials are twice as likely as Generation X to use cars, trucks or motorcycles less than once a week. The Urban Land Institute found that 55% of young people prefer having public transit options available, and a recent Zipcar survey shows that more than 50 percent of Millennials would drive less if other transportation options were available. 39 percent of Zipcar’s survey respondents cited environmental concerns as a reason to drive less.

Thankfully, universities across the United States are stepping up to meet their students’ needs. An Ohio PIRG report from earlier in the year found at least 33 campus-based bikeshare programs throughout the nation and 104 “U-Pass” programs providing limitless access to local transit. It also found an increase in biking and walking path construction as well as ridesharing initiatives. In some ways, Ohio’s schools are ahead of the national curve – in one example, the University of Missouri began allowing it students unlimited access to local transit, funded through student activity fees, in 2011. The Ohio State University has provided the same service to students through COTA since 1997. Ohio State students now make up nearly 10% of COTA’s total ridership, translating to about 1.8-1.9 million trips yearly, according to fourth-year Ohio State student and COTA marketing intern Jevonna Morris.

The real question is when politicians in both Columbus and the state at large will notice their constituents’ demands. Last week, a group of Ohio State University students presented their unique research on adopting a fixed-rail system in Columbus to a 14-member working group assembled by the mayor’s office. Their proposal would bring a rail system to Columbus along High Street, adding a connector between Broad Street and Port Columbus International Airport as a second phase. With the new proposal, we can have a serious discussion about improving our transit infrastructure in a way that makes life more convenient for the entire city.

In September, Forbes named Columbus the number one “Opportunity City” in which ambitious professionals “can really make their mark.” Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of Millennials prefer city living, as opposed to 24 percent of age groups across the board. We have the opportunity to make Columbus the next hot city for entrepreneurial and hardworking Millennials to flock to, and one of the ways we can do that is by meeting the utility and consumer needs of what the New York Times called “the entrepreneurial generation.” The American Dream doesn’t look the same as it used to. If we’re talking about the future of Columbus, then it’s time to wake up and start the conversation now.

Neil Button
Campus Organizer for the Ohio Public Interest Research Group

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