Throughout the twentieth century, the automobile was an American icon, a symbol of freedom and mobility. It gave people choices they never had before -- new places to travel, new people to visit, and the like.
The digital age has only expanded the number of choices Americans have. No generation has embraced the freedom to choose more than the "millennials" -- those born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s.
Millennials aren't just insisting on the right to choose where to go -- but how to get there, too. They're opting for the mode of transport that allows them to accomplish what they want along the way -- whether it's socializing with friends, being environmentally responsible, or having the freedom to work or play en route.
We should welcome this trend. It improves the environment, saves money, and enhances commuters' quality of life. Communities will have to accommodate this demand for choice -- or risk losing millennials to places that do.
Americans have been driving less. The average American logged 7.6 percent fewer miles behind the wheel in 2012 than in 2004, when per-capita driving reached an all-time high.
Meanwhile, millennials are increasingly deciding that they can do without a car. In 2000, about one of every five people between the ages of 14 and 34 went without a driver's license. Ten years later, more than one in four in the same age group did not have a license.
Three-quarters of American 17-year-olds were licensed to drive in 1978. By 2008, it was just 49 percent.
Today, some 70 percent of millennials report regularly utilizing multiple alternatives to the car, including public transportation.
What explains this shift? It starts with millennials' worldview. More than other generations, they "appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning," according to Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker and Emily Esfahani Smith of the Hoover Institution.
Millennials act on that desire for meaning -- to "make a difference" -- even when deciding how to get from place to place. To explain their preference for a multi-modal lifestyle undergirded by public transportation, they specifically cite ease of use, lower environmental impact, and the sense of community it fosters.
Indeed, a recent University of Minnesota study found that living closer to light rail lines is associated with a higher degree of life satisfaction.
The same impulse compels millennials to make cities their homes. Only 14 percent live in rural areas, compared with 36 percent of their grandparents at a similar age. One-third of millennials reside in central city areas, where public transit options tend to be robust.
Cities that embrace this trend and develop the infrastructure to support it will flourish.
In 2013, Americans took some 10.7 billion trips on public transportation -- the highest figure in 57 years.
This growth has been aided by technology. For tech-savvy millennials, smartphones are essential transportation tools. One-quarter cite transportation apps as a reason they're less dependent on cars -- whether they use Uber or Lyft to schedule a ride or monitor the bus or train they're looking to take via GPS in order to minimize the time they spend waiting.
The benefits of smartphones continue throughout the journey. Forty percent of millennials point to the ability to multitask on the bus or subway -- sending email, playing games, or surfing the web -- as a reason they favor public transit. It's easier to be social -- online or offline -- while riding a bus or walking than in a car.
Millennials also find public transit's environmental benefits attractive. Shifting the daily commute from the car to a bus or train can reduce a household's carbon emissions by 10 percent.
Finally, in times of economic uncertainty, public transportation can save people money. American households spend about 16 percent of their income on transportation, the vast majority of which goes toward buying and maintaining cars. Frequent public transit users, on the other hand, save in excess of $9,000 a year.
Millennials have been strapped with student loan debt and a poor economy. Affordable transportation options may matter to them more than their elders.
Every generation sets a new trend, and millennials are no exception. They've embraced multiple ways of getting around, including public transit, far more than previous generations. Indeed, 45 percent of millennials say they've consciously tried to replace driving with transportation alternatives -- compared to 32 percent of older folks.
The question is whether the next generation of leaders will stand pat -- or roll out truly multi-modal transportation options. Millennials have already articulated their preference for the latter. It's up to elected officials to meet their expectations -- by investing more in public transit.
Peter Varga is Chief Executive Officer of The Rapid in Grand Rapids, Mich., and chair of the American Public Transportation Association.