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Transit Discussion in real-time.

The screen generation will transform transit tech.

Millennials will soon kick transit technology into high gear.

By Matt Schroeder
Director of Marketing, ETA Transit Systems

One day I looked at a calendar and realized that I have been in the marketing game for over a quarter-century. As of this blog, that number officially clocks in at 26 years. Unofficially, it means that those gray hairs that have started to sprinkle their way into my once brown mane have been well-earned. It also is a clear signal that I am getting old(er).

If you do the math, it also means that I am a Gen-Xer.

It is my generation of shiftless, directionless layabouts with our grunge music and flannel wardrobes that are starting to assume positions of real influence within organizations all over the world—including the transit industry. You know, the generation that was supposed to be the downfall of American civilization. It gives you the warm and fuzzies, doesn’t it?

Speaking of ‘warm and fuzzies,’ if there’s one thing in all my years in marketing, is that nothing plays as well as nostalgia. That rush of fondness and wistfulness of days past; those memories of how good things used to be before the current generation mucked things up for everyone.

Face it, we all but invented pop culture. We grew up on I Love Lucy and Star Trek re-runs. We embraced Conjunction Junction, Mr. T, and He-Man cartoons. We know how many licks it takes to get to the center of Tootsie Pops, and we still won’t eat fried eggs because they’re a gateway food to the use of hard drugs.

We eagerly plunked down our hard-earned allowance to play Pac-Man, we worked hard to set the high score on River Raid for the Atari 2600, and we helped Mario become a legendary icon for generations to come.

My generation is the one that genuinely began to embrace computer technology. We didn’t invent the Internet (thank you, Boomers), but we gave it footing and ushered in the era of e-commerce, online news, video streaming, and of course, social media (the jury is still out on that last one, folks). We helped connect societies across the planet in a way that has never before seen, and for better or worse, humanity is still very much trying to catch up to this new way of connected living.

In our education, X-ers bridged the gap between manual and computer-powered work. From our Apple IIe to the x86 personal computers, we were the ones who made coding cool and not the bastion of nerdom whose pocket protectors, taped-up glasses, and suspenders relegated wearers to the far tables in the high school cafeteria.

As a generation, we should hang it up and rest on our laurels. We’ve accomplished a lot. Of course, we won’t because we still have a lot of time and promise ahead of us. But if it was Generation X that ushered in mainstream acceptance of technology, it’s going to be the Millennials (aka Gen Y) that will transform it, including that in the realm of public transportation.

I got started on the whole parenthood-thing a bit later in life, so my now teenage kids are considered Gen Z. Let me tell you, these are kids who were born with a screen in their hand. They were raised with technology—as if technology were just another sibling, albeit one with a power switch.

Millennials and Gen Z will fundamentally change transit.

It isn’t exactly a secret among transit professionals that the technology used within the public transportation industry typically runs 10 to 15 years behind what is currently available. It is often a struggle to get new concepts and products to market because there is a resistance to new ideas.

At ETA, we conduct annual surveys that reveal a disconnect between what transit riders want and where transit operators emphasize. Operational needs and budgetary considerations aside (to which riders have little or no insight), the subtext in these survey results reveal a desire for a more enjoyable transit experience. Rarely are the interests of the agency and the passenger in alignment.

What these surveys also reveal is a disparity in the age of the decision-makers in transit.

  • 55+ – (49%)
  • 45-54 -- (21.3%) — X’ers
  • 25-44 – (17.1%) — Millennials
  • 18-24 – (5.6%) — Gen Z

The majority of people in these positions of authority are over the age of 55 (49%), which almost equals the combined influence of X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z combined. The X’ers—with their hybrid experience between current and new school technology--play the role of a bridge from the Boomer generation to the screen generations that are filling up the pipeline of leaders and influencers within the realm.

Now, before you think I’m bagging on the Boomer generation for keeping transit industry a couple steps behind in the technology game, realize that the psychology of change is a tricky beast. The world is speeding up faster than humans as a whole can adapt. The ideas of what is possible continue to outpace our ability to keep up; there is always something newer, faster, better  than before. It’s understandable to think that every generation is better equipped to handle the changes in the world than the one that came before—that’s just evolution at work. It’s not like we can call in Lee Majors for a Steve Austin-level upgrade to our current, innate instincts and environmental processing skills.

Life just doesn’t work that way.

Also, keep in mind that the premium placed on the transit experience will differ from market to market. Integrators certainly like to push the envelope of what’s possible, but is there necessarily a large enough interest to carve out space for these ideas?

I’ve been on public transit in rural Wyoming, where a simple LED sign represents a significant upgrade while buses in upscale urban Florida boast the same meager tech.

Combining my integrator motivations and Gen X sensibilities, relying on outdated LED signs is a curious choice when a high-definition display provides much more versatility at a lower price point.

I’ve seen transit agencies push hard to get Wi-Fi on their vehicles seemingly without realizing that the days of wireless Internet on transit is already on the decline, rendered obsolete by smartphones with unlimited data plans.

Transit operators push hard for a standalone mobile app to track bus status when the era of mobile-first web design principles provide the same (or better) experience without the hassle of maintaining separate code bases.

Simply put, there’s a lag in adoption and recognizing everything that’s available because it’s truly hard to keep abreast of just how quickly technology and attitudes are changing.

The future is already 10 minutes old.

What’s also not a secret is that Millennials (and their younger Gen Z counterparts) are among the fastest-growing adopters of transit and the first generation not to view vehicle ownership as a status symbol. However, like car ownership is driven by the latest bells and whistles, public transit will be pushed by these younger generations who are used to having the latest technology and are comfortable with always being ‘connected’ to whatever they need, whenever they want it.

Instant gratification is going to be a big motivator as these generations start to influence transit specifications. Just you watch. The push to keep up with the Joneses in the transit market is going to increase as hardware costs drop, open architecture system design replaces stodgy proprietary systems, and the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) pricing structures begin to supplant traditional CapX procurement processes.

These ‘kids’ will want the latest and greatest components and experience, and they’ll favor those solutions that support giving them easier access to upgrades and prestige-building project. Truth be told, they and their video game loving, screen dependent counterparts are better suited to identifying and initiating change than any generation that has come before.

Buckle up.

Every once in a while, I dust off the old Atari 2600. I watch my kids—who can conquer in Fortnite and Call of Duty—get their butts handed to by a floating yellow duck (err, dragon) from Adventure. Yep, this X’er still knows how to knock those Gen Y kids down a peg or two.