The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Suburbs such as Montgomery County rethink transit to court millennials

The Silver Spring Transit Center would be a stop on the proposed Purple Line, but the light-rail project’s future remains uncertain. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

After moving to Washington from Akron, Ohio, six years ago, Katie Reed and her husband, Brian, happily ditched their two cars to live in Chinatown, where they enjoy walking to restaurants and shops.

So when she searched for a new job two years ago, Katie Reed, 32, considered it “critical” to find one on a Metro line. She also wanted to walk to lunch and after-work errands.

She landed at Choice Hotels International, which had just moved its headquarters to Rockville Town Square from Silver Spring. Its old offices, just outside the Capital Beltway, were reachable only by car and bus and had one restaurant within walking distance. The new digs are across the street from the Rockville Metro station. A gym, a CVS pharmacy and loads of restaurants are steps away.

“We didn’t have to change our lifestyle,” said Reed, a headquarters liaison to the hotel chain’s franchisees. “We didn’t have the burden of having to get a car.”

Transit-centric millennials like Reed, who were born between 1980 and the early 2000s, are causing angst in traditionally car-dominant suburbs such as Montgomery County. Suburbs nationwide have long lured companies — and the high-skilled workers they seek to attract — with good schools, relatively low crime and spacious corporate campuses surrounded by vast parking lots near major highways.

A realization is growing among those communities’ business and civic leaders that the traditional suburban brand needs an overhaul.

Concerns about Montgomery's appeal to millennials gained new urgency last month, when Marriott International chief executive Arne M. Sorenson revealed that the hotel giant plans to leave its Bethesda office park when its lease expires in 2022. One of the company's goals, Sorenson said, is to accommodate younger workers who want to be closer to Metro.

Marriott's announcement is the latest sign that mass transit, once viewed as a prescription for traffic congestion, is now considered a must-have economic development tool to attract millennials — the country's largest living generation — along with their employers, and the taxes that both contribute to local governments. Adding to the demand is the country's second-largest demographic group: empty-nest baby boomers seeking to downsize in the suburbs and drive less as they grow older.

Stephen P. Joyce, Choice Hotels’ chief executive, said he noticed, starting about five years ago, that many of the young workers the company was eyeing for its growing number of tech jobs wanted to live in the District and downtown Bethesda.

“If you’re a suburban employer and you want to be relevant to people who want to live in urban locations, you’ve got to think mass transit,” Joyce said. “I can’t compete unless they can get to us without driving.”

The growing millennial and boomer preference for working and living in more walkable, urban settings is also transforming the traditional suburban office park. Some office-park owners are planning townhouses, restaurants, shops, walking paths and bike lanes to create a town-center feel, even as these spots remain isolated from major transit stations. In places that are years away from new light-rail or rapid bus lines — if they ever get them — upgrades in traditional bus and shuttle service will be necessary to meet changing lifestyles, business leaders say.

“This generation wants more things at their fingertips, rather than having to jump in a car to get to the mall or go eat,” said Henry Bernstein, a longtime Montgomery economic development official and now a senior vice president for Scheer Partners, a Rockville-based commercial real estate firm.

“I truly believe any community that doesn’t have these things will fail,” he said.

In Northern Virginia, government officials and the private sector hope Metro's new Silver Line extension will remake driving-oriented Tysons Corner into a vibrant urban hub.

Even Denver and Phoenix, which traditionally have generated far more suburban sprawl than urban density, are investing in new rail lines to lure big business. Illinois-based State Farm Insurance recently chose Atlanta, Dallas and Tempe, Ariz., as locations for new regional offices because, company officials said, their "transit-oriented" development can retain top talent.

"Millennials are the gold standard of demographics today," said Tom Clark, chief executive of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. "You chase them, and you entice them. They're the most highly educated demographic the United States has ever had. . . . If you can get millennials to come to you, your long-term economic survivability is extraordinary."

In North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, now reachable only by car and regional bus, a planned light-rail line would connect the 7,000-acre campus and the 50,000 people who work there with Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

The park’s managers also are preparing to build a hotel, restaurants and homes amid the vast acreage of office buildings. The park, half the size of Manhattan, doesn’t even have a coffee shop. Companies want more.

“They know that when they try to recruit talent, they’ll find people saying, ‘Really? I have to eat in the corporate cafeteria of my mom’s and dad’s office park or get in my car?” said Bob Geolas, president of the Research Triangle Foundation.

Montgomery officials are teaming with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to try to persuade Marriott to stay, citing what they say is plenty of room around Metro's Red Line stations in the county.

County officials also are pushing for a 16-mile light-rail Purple Line to connect more affordable suburban neighborhoods with Metro stations and job centers such as downtown Bethesda, downtown Silver Spring and the University of Maryland's College Park campus. (It doesn't help firms to pay top dollar for offices atop a station, planners say, if their employees can't conveniently reach Metro from home.)

After more than a decade of planning and debate, however, a Purple Line's future remains uncertain as Hogan's administration analyzes whether the state can afford to build a cheaper version of the $2.4 billion proposal.

Montgomery officials are also planning two Bus Rapid Transit systems: a Corridor Cities Transitway along the Interstate 270 bio-tech corridor and a countywide network of bus lanes. However, neither proposal has a construction schedule or financing plan.

Meanwhile, Montgomery has changed much of its zoning to allow office parks to add homes, shops and restaurants. Across the street from Marriott headquarters in Rock Spring Park, a sign advertises future townhomes, priced from $700,000 and up.

“It doesn’t require a Harvard urban planning degree,” said Steve Silverman, the county’s former economic development director. “These are not radical concepts, but what they require is some sense of urgency. We don’t have enough of a sense of urgency.”

Montgomery officials say they are well aware the county has more gray hair than other parts of the Washington region. Just over 13 percent of Montgomery’s population is 65 and older, compared with 11.3 percent in the District and 11 percent in Fairfax County, according to 2013 census figures.

At the same time, about 19 percent of Montgomery’s population was 20 to 34, compared with 34 percent of residents in Arlington County, 31.6 percent in the District and 20 percent in Fairfax.

To be sure, new transit systems are expensive to build and operate. And Metro, with its funding and safety issues, is a vivid example of what can go wrong.

New transit systems are also unpopular with some suburbanites who say they sought quiet neighborhoods with bigger houses and yards, not homes next to high-rises with trains and buses running past at all hours.

Moreover, there are plenty of companies, particularly those that require laboratories and other large facilities, that will continue to need less expensive space, even if it means being farther from transit. And plenty of workers, including millennials, still find driving to be the fastest, most reliable commute.

Matt Bell, chief operating officer of MedImmune, the biologics research arm of biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, said younger workers at MedImmune’s 51-acre campus off I-270 in Gaithersburg don’t ask to be nearer to Metro, which is six miles away. Most employees “by far” drive to work, he said, while a “small percentage” take Metro, ride bikes or walk from the nearby Kentlands community. But employees of all ages want convenient options, he said. Six months ago, at their request, the company increased its shuttle van service to the Shady Grove Metro station.

Transportation researchers and planning experts say one big question remains: how much millennials, the oldest of whom are now reaching their mid-30s, will continue to shun cars as more begin to have children and, in turn, enter what traditionally are the highest-mileage years of people’s lives.

Researchers say they’re intrigued that millennials’ aversion to driving and owning a car has endured even since the recession ended. Moreover, studies show that Americans of all ages are driving less, with per capita annual mileage continuing to drop since 2006.

All that, and other data, experts say, point to a broad cultural shift in how and where many generations want to live, work and get around.

“It’s not just the recession, and it’s not just millennials,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy program. “The change is so dramatic, it can’t be the result of one thing. There are definitely structural changes happening.”