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One Thing Millennials Aren't Killing? Public Transportation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Millennials are often blamed for killing things - you know, like golf, mayonnaise, vacations, marriage. It's almost become a cliche. Well, there is one thing many millennials and their younger counterparts in Gen Z are trying to save - public transportation. Urban living, concern for the environment and a lack of romanticism about cars are some of the reasons why. NPR's Emma Peaslee has more.

EMMA PEASLEE, BYLINE: There's one word that 24-year-old Michelle Santa Maria keeps using when she talks about public transit.

MICHELLE SANTA MARIA: I feel like it's so cute.

It's just cute.

It's so cute.

I think it's cute. I mean...

PEASLEE: It's clear that for her, public transportation is about a lot more than just getting from point A to point B. Santa Maria is one of the many millennials who aren't as car-crazy as their parents' generation. She belongs to a Facebook group called - and brace yourself; it's a mouthful - New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. The acronym is NUMTOTS, which is what they call themselves. There are more than 200,000 members, and they share funny posts but also debate transportation policies and fantasize about a world in which nobody needs a car. But the pandemic has crushed that dream. Across the country, drops in ridership have led to budget cuts and service rollbacks, which means a lot of trains and buses are coming less frequently, if at all.

WILLIAM CLARK: To be honest, it's infuriating in a way.

PEASLEE: William Clark is also a NUMTOT. He's 25 years old and lives in Philadelphia. He worries about transit workers as well as the commuters who ride buses and subways not because they love them but because they don't have a choice.

CLARK: Because when you reduce the amount of service, you have to pack more people onto fewer vehicles. It leads to a higher possibility of contracting COVID. It's actually pretty scary.

PEASLEE: He works from home now, but he's trying to support the system in other ways. He's a member of a transit riders union in Philadelphia where he advocates for the needs of riders in the city who might not be able to make public meetings. Across the country, 25-year-old Alex Lee is advocating for transit in San Jose, Calif. He got himself elected to the state Legislature and appointed to the Transportation Committee.

ALEX LEE: If you start cutting transit, then you're really hurting the people that depend on it. Most are people who don't have access to cars or people who rely on these literal lifeblood to get to work. And a lot of these are essential service workers.

PEASLEE: Twenty-seven-year-old Tenzin Chumpel (ph) used to be one of those essential workers. He was an ICU nurse in Boston until he moved to Vermont.

TENZIN CHUMPEL: So we're in the bike lane here in Burlington - nice and wide. And, oh, here's the other thing. It's the middle of January. We just had a snowfall, and the bike lane is just as clear as any road.

PEASLEE: He left in part because he feared for his life biking on the streets, and the commute on the subway could take as long as three hours. So what do NUMTOTS like him think about the new U.S. president, whose nickname, after all, is Amtrak Joe and who's appointed a millennial, Pete Buttigieg, as transportation secretary? Some are hopeful, but Chumpel is not impressed.

CHUMPEL: Is Pete Buttigieg actually a millennial? He seems ancient.

PEASLEE: (Laughter) Let me look up his age. I'm fairly certain that he is.

CHUMPEL: I know. I've got to get on my phone and be like, oh, dang. Is he?

PEASLEE: We Google it, and it turns out Buttigieg is 39.

CHUMPEL: Oh, so I guess he counts as a millennial. But does he think like a millennial? No, I don't think so.

PEASLEE: To Chumpel, thinking like a millennial means not thinking like a politician, like all those politicians from previous generations who promised major upgrades to public transit systems and never delivered.

Emma Peaslee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.