The ads are on el platforms and 15 Brown Line cars. They’re on social media, in downtown health clubs, and on beer coasters in local bars. A typical placard juxtaposes dejected-looking young straphangers with shiny, happy people drinking beer on a terrace above Madison’s Lake Monona, playing Frisbee golf or competing in beach volleyball. The accompanying texts pose dilemmas such as “Rush hour or happy hour?,” “An hour commute or an hour with friends?,” and “Bump elbows or bump on the court?” The tagline? “Wisconsin: It’s more you.”
They’re all part of a $1 million marketing campaign to entice Chicago millennials to move to the Badger State. The message is clear: the el’s a drag, so move to Wisconsin, where you can drive everywhere instead.
Consider that a message direct from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a Republican whose anti-transit policies have included refusing $810 million in federal grants lined up by his predecessor for a new passenger rail line linking Milwaukee and Madison. The organization behind the $1 million ad campaign is the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a public-private venture Walker created in 2011. Now he’s looking to take the message elsewhere: on February 8, the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee approved his proposal to spend another $6.8 million to expand the campaign to other states. The funding still needs to be approved by the full legislature, but Wisconsin soon may be trying to poach millennials from cities like Detroit and Minneapolis, too.
I recently buttonholed a few such folks on the Brown Line to get their impressions of the campaign. “I love the CTA,” said preschool teacher DeAdra Estelle, 29, on the Armitage platform. “I don’t have a car, and my commute is pretty easy.” She thinks the ads are funny.
Adam Stevens, a 26-year-old software consultant who moved to Chicago from Milwaukee suburb Whitefish Bay, said he’s generally had positive experiences with the el. He’s skeptical about the ad campaign’s strategy: “Being from Wisconsin, there are enough positives to play off of that we don’t need to focus on anything negative to get people to move up there,” he said.
But is there something to those negatives? Another one of the ads claims that “Chicago has the longest commute times in the country compared to only 22 minutes in Wisconsin,” and asks viewers if they’d rather be “Waiting for a train or waiting for kabobs” at a barbecue. While that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, it’s true that Chicago’s average commute time is 32.4 minutes, significantly longer than the average Milwaukee commute of 22.4 minutes, according to recent Census data.
Yet the average length of a transit commute in the two cities is virtually the same—43.4 minutes in Chicago, compared to 42.4 in Milwaukee. Commute distances are longer in Chicago, but the el, immune to traffic jams, evens things out, since Milwaukee doesn’t have rapid transit.
“It’s not so much that people are choosing to drive in Wisconsin, but rather that the choice of riding a train was taken away from them,” says Scott Bernstein, director of Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, a sustainability think tank. “I have a really hard time looking at those ads and not being somewhat offended. My guess is that people in Wisconsin might be offended too.”
Indeed, former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz recently wrote in the Isthmus, the city’s free weekly, that the ad campaign seems “premised on the notion that millennials would rather spend time stuck in traffic on the Milwaukee freeway system or on the Madison Beltline than riding the el.” He noted that nowadays about a quarter of U.S. 19-year-olds don’t even have driver’s licenses. “It apparently never occurred to the WEDC that there are people who actually would rather ride a train than drive a car.”
Marta Grabowski is one of them. On the Belmont platform, the environmental engineer told me the el factored into her decision to take her current job instead of one in a city with no rapid transit. “I don’t think [the ads are] going to persuade millennials to leave Chicago. I think young people, especially, like riding the train. It’s sort of a cool city thing.”
That was seconded at the Irving Park stop by a 31-year-old banking industry employee named Thai, who previously lived in Brew City and drove to work every day. “Milwaukee’s great, but the public transportation isn’t so great,” he said. “I actually prefer riding the el to driving, not having to sit in traffic. The CTA works perfectly for me.”
Judging from these responses, if the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation wants to convince Chicago millennials to move, it should stop portraying the el as a hell ride and focus on promoting the things America’s Dairyland does best: beer, brats, Brie, and bouldering. v