11 Reasons Why Public Transit, Bicycles and Our Feet are Moving Us Toward a Brighter Future

More people can get around without a car, which is good for our pocketbooks and communities

Woman walking in pink rain boots.

In a livable community, people can get around by putting on their walking shoes (or boots). — iStock

According to the pundits and prophets, the future of transportation is all figured out for us.

Cheaper gas prices mean we'll be able to count on our cars to take us wherever we want to go for years to come. The only big change coming in our near future will be driverless cars, which will make the long hours we spend behind the wheel less boring and more productive.

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This everything-stays-the-same vision ignores some significant social developments. Americans have actually been driving less per capita for the past decade, bucking a century-long trend of ever-increasing dependence on automobiles. 

This startling turnaround is usually written off as a mere statistical blip caused by the recession and $4 gas, both of which hit in 2008. But, in fact, the miles traveled by Americans in cars stopped growing in 2004 and began declining in 2007.

Spearheading this trend of less driving is the millennial generation who, after spending much of their childhoods confined in the backseats of minivans, are eager for a wider range of transportation choices. They account for a good share of the unexpected rise in public transit use, biking and walking. Although baby boomers, who like to use a variety of travel options, are also a factor.

The number of miles traveled by car each day by Americans ages 50 to 74 declined from 38.7 to 35.5 miles between 2001 and 2009, according to an AARP analysis of federal transportation data. The percentage of trips made by this group in private automobiles declined from 90 to 86 percent, while public transit use increased by 33 percent, from approximately 1.4 percent of all trips to 2.1 percent. Walking, meanwhile, accounted for 8.8 percent of trips made by all older adults.

Sme facts about how Americans get around:

  • We made 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013 — the highest number since 1956, which is when the massive mobilization to build highways and push for suburban development began. These numbers represent a 37 percent public transit increase since 1995.

  • Meanwhile, bicycle commuting is up by 60 percent over the past decade, according to U.S. Census figures. 

  • People are walking 6 percent more than in 2005, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Significantly, the number of miles Americans travel in cars and trucks per capita has dropped nine percent since 2005.

This is good news for everybody because broader transportation choices are linked to a bounty of social and economic benefits, including expanded economic development, revitalized urban and suburban communities, increased social equity, reduced household transportation costs, improved public health, decreased traffic congestion and improved environmental conditions. 

1. Meeting the Needs of Older Adults

America's transportation needs are changing as tens of millions of baby boomers approach their 70s. While most will continue to drive, there is growing interest in public transit, walking, bicycling and other transportation options.

AARP advocates for transportation safety, increased transportation access, choice of modes and better connections between transportation, housing and services. Complete Streets policies (in which planners and transportation engineers take the needs of all users — public transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists — into account) are one way to increase both safety and access for people of all ages and abilities.

Although more than 80 states and localities have passed Complete Streets policies, less than one-third directly address the needs of older road users, according to AARP research. A poll of Americans age 50 and older found that 50 percent report being unable to safely cross main roads near their home. Forty percent reported inadequate sidewalks in their neighborhoods. Half of those reporting these problems said they would walk, bicycle and take the bus more often if those issues were resolved.

This is part of AARP's broader Livable Communities initiative to better serve older adults who want to remain in their own homes and communities and live independently for as long as possible

2. Stimulating New Development Along Transit Corridors

The development of most American cities was guided by streetcars or subway systems, just as post-World War II suburbs grew up around highway exits. Today we are experiencing a renaissance of urban growth, thanks in large part to new urban rail systems.  

This not-so-new phenomena is called Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), and it helps explain why 19 U.S. regions without train transit have built light rail systems since 1981 (and nearly all regions with rail have expanded theirs). A study sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration points to Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area — two of the nation's most booming regions — as being national leaders in TOD.

The new light rail between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul generated $2.5 billion in development (more than double its cost) before the line even opened in June 2014, with much more expected. 

Salt Lake City shared similar experiences with its new S-line streetcar, which garnered more than $400 million in development before boarding its first passenger. "In Salt Lake City, rail transit has catalyzed vibrant development," says Mayor Ralph Becker. "It has been key to achieving mobility and prosperity goals in our city."

Even bus rapid transit (innovative bus systems that approach the speed and convenience of light rail) spurs new development. When Cleveland invested $50 million in the HealthLine Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line — with specially designed buses moving swiftly in an exclusive lane on city streets — the result was $5.8 billion in new development along a seven-mile route from downtown to a cluster of medical and educational institutions on the city's east side. 

3. Cashing in on the Power of Clusters

"Public transit is worth way more to a city than you might think," trumpeted a headline in The Atlantic magazine's influential City Lab news service. That's because it fosters "agglomeration," which writer Eric Jaffe explains this way: "As more people collect in a city center, more jobs cluster there too, boosting both wages and economic productivity."

The key to agglomeration is public transit, according to a research paper in the journal Urban Studies that finds "a ten percent increase of transit seats or rail service miles per capita" translates into $1.5 million to $1.8 billion in wage increases, depending on the size of the city. The paper was co-authored by University of California-Berkeley planning scholar Daniel G. Chatman, who was once skeptical of the economic value of public transit.

Next page: Real results for real estate. »

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