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Greater Minnesota needs mobility options

This is the first of two commentaries on rural transportation options.

By Pia Lopez

The hottest policy topics at the “One Minnesota 2015” conference, kicking off the new legislative session, were transportation needs and the demands of Minnesota’s aging baby boom population. And the political buzz was all about Greater Minnesota’s higher profile, due to the new Republican House majority’s rural complexion.

Greater Minnesota. Transportation. Aging population. These three priorities are closely related and legislators have a chance to serve all three in this crucial 2015 session, with a transportation funding package that does much more than maintain roads and highways in rural Minnesota.

As the state demographer pointed out in the conference, aging is hitting Greater Minnesota’s 80 counties first, and hardest. In 2012, 27 Greater Minnesota counties had more than one in five residents aged 65 or older — and some well above that. By 2020, nearly all of the state’s counties outside of the seven-county Twin Cities metro area are projected to reach that status. And by 2030, every county will be there.

Rural boomers need mobility

This generation, the most mobile in U.S. history, now is facing the reality of declining mobility. Eyesight, response times and physical capacity aren’t what they used to be and will prevent many older people from driving. Not surprisingly, we see steep declines in driver’s license renewals after age 75. Still, surveys consistently indicate that boomers want to “age in place” — stay in their homes, in their small towns and in their rural residences as long as possible.

All this, of course, poses a major transportation challenge. In Greater Minnesota’s rural and small town communities, how will our older residents continue their freedom of movement as they age past their peak driving years? How will they get groceries, go to doctor appointments, visit friends and family, and travel to regional hub cities for entertainment and other services?

In Greater Minnesota, we actually do have transportation mobility options in place, mostly with dial-a-ride vans and small buses, as well as volunteer drivers using their own vehicles. And some Greater Minnesota cities, such as Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud and others also have fixed-route bus systems. But big gaps remain in service hours and destinations served.

Options also remain fragmented, with some systems providing multi-county services while others operate within one county or one community of the region. Older adults in Greater Minnesota deserve better, a mix of transportation options which get them to destinations and encourage their independence.

Millennials also want more options

The aging baby boom generation is not the only demographic group that wants more transportation options in Greater Minnesota. Another is the millennial generation, those born after 1980. Where boomers came of age during post-World War II affluence, the millennials were slammed by the Great Recession — 37 percent of people aged 18-29 were unemployed or out of the workforce, the highest share among this age group in more than three decades, according to a February 2010 Pew Research Center report.

Greater Minnesota communities are putting Herculean efforts into workforce training and every creative effort they can manage to keep and attract young people.

But U.S. census data continue to show population decline in rural and small town areas of less than 50,000 people. Young people still are moving to cities. A critical issue for this generation are alternatives to driving and their parents’ dependence on cars.

A Rockefeller Foundation survey last April found that four in five millennials aged 18-34 say they want to live in places where they have a variety of options to get to jobs, school or for daily needs. Three in four say it is likely they will live in a place where they do not need a car to get around.

In Greater Minnesota, how will young people who don’t drive or own a car get to training opportunities and jobs? In Greater Minnesota cities, such as St. Cloud, students can ride buses free with a student ID. But what about rural areas and towns under 50,000 people?

Minnesota’s Itasca Project, an employer-led civic alliance made up of primarily private-sector CEOs, points to a startling fact: “Millennials have the lowest levels of holding driver’s licenses in 50 years.” The percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds with driver’s licenses peaked in 1983 at 85 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration, but now is at 67 percent.

Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration’s 2013 report on household travel patterns tells the bigger picture: “Youth are driving less, making fewer trips, and traveling shorter distances” than previous generations did at the same age. Moreover, since they “continue to gravitate towards urban areas, they will become accustomed to living in places that offer a variety of travel options.”

Low-income and ‘zero-vehicle’ households

According to the AAA annual driving costs study, it took $8,876 in 2014 to own, insure, maintain and gas up the average car, based upon 15,000 miles of annual driving. That is prohibitive for the 600,000 Minnesotans at the official poverty level — who have annual income less than $11,670 for an individual and less than $23,850 for a family of four. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 70 percent of zero-vehicle households earn less than $30,000 a year. How can lower-income Minnesotans get to the schooling and training opportunities and jobs that would pull them out of poverty?

The Minnesota Budget Project and Catholic Charities have produced some eye-opening maps on Minnesota poverty, showing that some of our Greater Minnesota counties have more than 20 percent of their population living in poverty. Often these people depend on getting rides from other people who have cars, which means they have trouble with reliable transportation to get to work.

Add it all up for Greater Minnesota in this crucial legislative session for our state’s transportation future, and it’s clear we need to greatly expand mobility options in Greater Minnesota as a key strategy for serving our boomers, investing in our millennials, addressing poverty and unemployment, and expanding our equal-opportunity society.

Next: Best options for Greater Minnesota’s increasing mobility needs.

Pia Lopez is a former editorial page editor for the St. Cloud Times and the Duluth News Tribune, an adjunct faculty member at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, and a Policy Fellow for Growth & Justice. She lives in Avon, Minnesota (pop. 1,400).

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