WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — A flood of millennials is taking over New York's rails, fueling a record number of passengers last year for at least two of the area's three commuter railroads.
Long Island Rail Road's ridership surged by 2.1% to 87.6 million, its highest total since 1949. Metro-North Railroad had a 1.6% increase in customers to 86.1 million. New Jersey Transit's 2015 numbers have not been released yet, but a November report showed service to New York City was steadily increasing while ridership between New Jersey stations was decreasing.
Hard numbers of millennials who ride the rails are hard to come by, but Michael Shiffer, Metro-North's vice president for planning, sees evidence of the trend in the faces on the train he takes home every night to the suburbs.
“When I ride home, I don’t see a lot of millennials on the train,” Shiffer said. “They’re there, but they’re not as visible. But when I look at the platform of people going inbound, you see them. They’re the folks who want to go in at 7 or 8 at night. And that’s where they tend to be more visible.”
Late on a Saturday afternoon at the train station here, the grim, workaday faces of the daily commuter give way to 20-somethings sporting embroidered backpacks, earbuds and skinny jeans.
No briefcases are in sight, only plastic shopping bags hiding a few craft beers.
Among them is Nick Rieder, 27, of White Plains. During the week, the Minnesota native drives north to his job in a corporate office park in Westchester County. On the weekends, he leaves the car home.
“We’re just going to Harlem, 125th Street,” Rieder said. “And then we’re going to meet a buddy for a birthday party in the city. That’s the plan.”
An analysis of Metro-North ridership numbers hints at the root of its increased popularity. The railroad non-commuter ridership — those who take the train for something other than work — grew by 2.4%, or some 856,000 trips on lines east and west of the Hudson River in 2015, officials say.
Meanwhile, commuter ridership rose 1%. The Long Island Rail Road had roughly the same amount of commuters and non-commuters.
“Much of our growth has been in the off-peak market,” said Shiffer of Metro-North. “It’s the travel on the weekends and the evenings.”
Metro-North surveys appear to bear out the trend. On the weekends, those 35 or older will take the train half the time while millennials take the train 75% of the time, Shiffer said.
Plummeting gas prices
The most recent time Metro-North witnessed such a ridership surge was in 2008 when gas prices were high. But with gas prices leveling off, the numbers have continued to tick upward at a time when many younger people are forsaking their car for the train.
“We are seeing the confluence of a strengthening regional economy, healthier downtowns around the region, a new generation of millennials who value public transportation, and greater productivity on board our trains through the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and laptops,” Thomas Prendergast, Metropolitan Transportation Authority president, said last week.
Millennials say it's not just time spent on their smartphone or listening to music that has them riding trains. For many, it's the cheapest way to travel.
Jadean Norman, 20, a junior accounting major at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., takes the train into Grand Central Terminal three times a week for her part-time job at a midtown bank. She pays $260 for a monthly pass.
“It’s just overall a better experience than all the stress of driving, not to mention a lot of people my age can’t afford a car,” she said.
Given a choice, Norman said she’d rather be in her car.
“I think that there are pros and cons to both,” she said. “I do like being able to get work done on the train but, other than that, really, I would prefer my car because you’re in your own private space, you don’t have to deal with loud people and you can listen to music."
Ezar Merengueli, 31, was at the White Plains station Saturday on his way to see his family in Mount Kisco, N.Y. He, too, said he rather be in a car.
“I’m working hard on getting one,” he said.
No money for a car
Norman and Merengueli are not alone among young people who cite economic factors for turning o public transportation. More millennials are living with their families despite an improved labor market, a PewResearch Center study concluded last year.
“In fact, the nation’s 18- to 34-year-olds are less likely to be living independently of their families and establishing their own households today than they were in the depths of the Great Recession,” the study found.
The findings dovetail with surveys by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, which show that fewer people ages of 20 and 24 are getting their driver’s licenses than in years past.
Millenials surveyed cite a host of reasons for putting off what for many a suburban teen has long been a rite of passage: They're too busy, cars are too expensive, they prefer to take a bike or walk, they can get rides from others and they prefer public transportation were the top five reasons cited.
But according to Brandon Schoettle, who co-authored the study with Michael Sivak, it could be that some young people can’t afford a car or don’t have the money to pay for parking in a city.
“Public transportation is often the only alternative that they have,” Schoettle said. “It’s usually their only backdrop. As you get older, and generally more financially stable, there’s a little less of a desire to use buses and trains."
To capture this young market, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road have been working to provide the sort of technological upgrades millennials favor. That includes Wi-Fi service in tunnels, mobile ticketing and more phone apps.
Capturing the young market
In recent years, Metro-North has added more trains on weekends and evenings, service that not all systems are able to provide.
“One of the ways we’ve gotten there is running service on a consistent, predictable level, half-hourly service, where you look at the clocks and you know the train comes at 5 minutes past the hour,” Shiffer said. “That clock-face predictability really lends itself to the millennial travel pattern, to be able to come and go as they please.”
In the years to come, Shiffer said, Metro-North will have an eye on capturing these train-loving millennials as they abandon New York City for a place in the suburbs. Several so-called transit-oriented developments already have sprouted up in New Rochelle, Yonkers and White Plains, catering to the young as well as empty-nesters.
“One of the things we need to be cognizant of is they’re going to have kids,” Shiffer said. “Because they got used to that lifestyle, they might be looking for walkable options for high-quality transit and they may look for that in the suburbs.”
A former college professor, Shiffer made a habit of inquiring about his students' travel habits, a curiosity he has applied to his job at Metro-North. Like them, he prefers to use his smartphone to check train schedules and click on apps.
"I feel like a millennial at heart," he said.
Follow Thomas C. Zambito on Twitter: @TomZambito