Lack of transportation options causing “Brain Drain” in Wisconsin, losing young people

May 21, 2014 at 12:54 pm

A report released today from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) suggests that Wisconsin is facing a “brain drain” due to its lack of non-driving transportation options.

Begrudgingly, I’ll admit I’m a part of the “Millennial” group the report focuses on, but I dislike the term “Millennial” (blame my parent’s generation for writing too many recent disparaging articles about us), so let’s just say “young people” from now on.

The report echoes other articles’ assertions about young people’s driving habits – they’re lower than their parents. We just don’t seem to care about getting a driver’s license, owning a car, and so on. I have some personal, anecdotal reasons why I do not own a car: I grew up being driven around low-density exurbia. I have loved cities since the first time I visited Chicago. Chicago is a city that, in many neighborhoods, is easy to get around without a car. Also, I have a little student loan debt, and would also rather focus my extra cash on future things like retirement savings. My reasons aren’t “I use social media so I don’t need to drive to see my friends,” like many articles presume.

I got my undergraduate degree in Milwaukee and lived in its East Side neighborhood, close to the lake, my university, bars, restaurants, and grocery stores. It’s also pretty well-served by transit. I didn’t need a car – walking to school (where I also worked) took 20 minutes, and a bus trip to the Trader Joe’s took 30 minutes. Once a week with one or two bags of groceries was enough.


My old house, walk score: 83.

I recall professors in my urban planning courses urging students to stay in Milwaukee and contribute to its future after we graduated. Without a young workforce coming in, it would be hard for the region to remain competitive. The reality, though, is that Milwaukee just isn’t as desirable to young people as its peer cities. Many aspects of the city do make it desirable – a great lakefront, good museums, good food and bars, and so on… except transport options.

I knew I wanted to live in Chicago after I graduated, so I never really considered staying in Milwaukee. Had I not made up my mind, though, I know I wouldn’t have heavily considered Milwaukee. That’s the focus on this report, and Wisconsin’s “brain drain.” 60% of young people surveyed said they’d be more likely to stay in Wisconsin after graduating if they could live somewhere that didn’t require driving. 47% said living somewhere with car-free transportation options was “very important.” Only 14% said it wasn’t important at all.

Nearly half of the respondents said they already drove to school, and ninety percent of them plan to own (or continue owning) a car after graduating. Wisconsinites acknowledge that car-free living is really only possible if you’re lucky enough to live in a neighborhood as dense and walkable as, say, the East Side (where I lived).

Milwaukee’s population is about 600,000 strong, putting it around same size of cities like Denver, Minneapolis/St Paul (combined), Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC. The difference, however, is that these cities have better transit or bike infrastructure than Milwaukee, and they’re certainly not as divided as Milwaukee – politically, racially, or on an income basis.

Wisconsinites are also driving less than before, just like the US population as a whole. Transit ridership hit an all-time high in 2013 and has been rising for 12 years. It’s not surprising that Madison is also a very bikeable city, and 4.7% of workers commute by bicycle.

I’ve written before that Wisconsin’s transportation budget is completely out of touch with the realities of this century. Multibillion dollar highway interchanges come before expansion of high-speed rail service and new commuter rail service. It would have cost the state $8 million per year to run the high-speed rail service, which would have run from Chicago to Milwaukee (as Amtrak’s Hiawatha does now) and on to Madison (where no train service exists), with capital costs paid for by the federal government. The KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) commuter rail would have run from the Kenosha Metra station north through several lakefront suburbs to downtown Milwaukee, giving commuters a new way to get to work downtown or along any of those suburbs. Instead, the nearest north-south freeway – Interstate 94 – is being widened at a cost of $1.9 billion. The cost of the new commuter rail service, which may have relieved so much traffic that the freeway widening became unnecessary, was $284 million. Both rail projects were canceled by governor Scott Walker.

Wisconsin was going to receive brand new, Milwaukee-made Talgo trains until the governor canceled the contract and refused to pay for the trains, exemplifying the state’s attitude toward non-car travel. Image: Mass Transit.

Wisconsin would rather spend that money on double-decking freeways before even thinking about building a parallel commuter rail line. I believe the opposition to running rail from Milwaukee to the suburbs is to keep “those people” away. Milwaukee’s metro area isn’t the country’s most racially segregated by accident, after all.

In the end, WISPIRG’s report calls on Wisconsin to scale back on unnecessary highway expansion projects and increase funding for “alternative” modes of transportation. In order to entice young people to stay and contribute to the state’s future, Wisconsin needs to become more attractive to the future’s realities that are being revealed today.