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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 Walks By With Bright Pink Rainboots, Other Commuters In Background, Livable Communities, Public Transit

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


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.

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4. Driving the Real Estate Market in a New Direction

A study from the George Washington University (GWU) Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis suggests that auto-dominated suburban development has passed its peak. The greatest potential for future real estate growth are Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs), which depend upon quality public transportation and biking opportunities.

"WalkUPs are a crucial component in building and sustaining a thriving urban economy. Cities with more WalkUPs are positioned for success, now and in the future," says report co-author Christopher Leinberger, a real estate developer and GWU business professor.

Among the report's notable findings:

  • Metropolitan areas ranking high for WalkUP districts have 38 percent higher GDP per capita than those ranking low. 

  • Offices in WalkUP districts rent for a 74 percent premium per square foot over those in more auto-oriented settings.

5. Attracting the Talent that Makes a Region Thrive

Reliable public transportation has become a key indicator of future economic vitality in a metropolitan region. It's no longer simply a nice amenity, but it's an essential requirement for keeping and attracting growing businesses and the highly skilled employees these firms need to thrive.

Denver is the envy of cities coast-to-coast for its number one rank in attracting educated people ages 25 to 34, the so-called "young talent" that businesses everywhere covet. One of the city's big drawing cards is 122 miles of light rail and commuter rail lines now in service or under construction throughout the metropolitan region — America's most ambitious new public transit system since the Washington, D.C., Metro in the 1970s.

"The 20- to 35-year-olds, they're not big on cars,” points out Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. "They want to ride trains to work and entertainment. From an economic point of view, if you can offer them a number of ways to get around you’ve got a great advantage."

6. Saving Money for Millions of Households

Transportation costs rival housing costs for many American families, especially those living in areas with inadequate public transit service, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Transportation accounts for 25 percent of household costs in "Auto Dependent Exurbs," compared to 9 percent in walkable communities with good public transit connections.

Commuters taking a train or bus instead of a car save $10,064 on average per year, according to a report by the American Public Transit Association. This is based on American Automobile Association calculations about the cost of owning and driving a car, plus the cost of commuter parking according to the Colliers International Parking Rate Study.

The rapid rise of car share programs make it practical for many more households to rely on public transit, biking and walking as the backbone of their personal mobility, with a car share available on select occasions when needed. This reduces the pressure for families to buy a car or a second car.  

7. Making a Difference in Economic and Racial Inequality

The economic benefits of public transit are even more important to low- and moderate-income families, which spend 42 percent of their annual income on transportation compared to 22 percent for middle income families.

"In these times of high unemployment and unprecedented income inequality, transportation policy is one of the most pressing civil and human rights issues facing our nation,” writes civil rights activist Lexer Quamie, Counsel for the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights. Quamie notes that 19 percent of African-Americans and 13.7 percent of Latinos lack access to cars, compared to 4.6 percent of whites. This means that jobs in areas with poor or no public transportation "are disproportionately inaccessible to people of color."

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8. Meeting the Needs of Coming Generations

Throughout the 20th century cars meant more than transportation in the imagination of Americans — they were potent symbols of personal success, even sexiness. It's a new era today, because the rising millennials (the largest generation in American history) view transportation quite differently. As noted earlier, the car is only one way to get around for these young people who are now entering the workforce in massive numbers and want a variety of transportation choices, including public transit, biking and walking.

In fact, 70 percent of people age 18 to 34 regularly rely upon two or more forms of transportation each week, according to the survey Millennials & Mobility. Millennials interviewed rank transit highest of all travel modes for connecting to other forms of transportation in the study, which also notes that smartphones give public transit riders more opportunities to be flexible and spontaneous in choosing routes and times.

Young people today are driving less than previous generations. Research from the Federal Highway Administration found miles traveled by drivers ages 16 to 24 dropped five miles per day (22 percent) between 2001 and 2009. Over the same period, the number of miles traveled on public transportation by 16 to 34 year olds increased 40 percent per capita. Even Motor Trend magazine admits, "Today's young people appear to have less interest in driving and owning a car than do their … older counterparts."

A study done by the National Association of Realtors found that 62 percent of people age 18 to 29 would prefer to live in a neighborhood with public transit options, sidewalks and businesses nearby than in a neighborhood with large lots but without transit or sidewalks. The study also found that better public transportation was rated by people of all ages as the number one "community need" and the "preferred answer to reducing traffic congestion."

9. Boosting Our Health (and Cutting America's Medical Costs)

An often overlooked benefit of broadening our transportation options beyond cars is improved public health. Biking and walking allow people to get exercise in the course of daily activities, rather than trying to squeeze a workout into their already crowded schedules.

Public transit also boosts physical activity. Almost all bus and train trips involve a walk on both ends of the ride. If a person takes transit even just twice a day and the walks are only seven-and-a-half minutes each, they've already hit the magic healthy number: 30 minutes of moderate daily physical activity, which significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer's, depression, diabetes, colon cancer, stroke, obesity and many other conditions, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Intensive study of public health in neighborhoods before and after a light rail line was constructed in Charlotte, North Carolina, confirms the important role of public transit in promoting moderate physical activity. Researchers publishing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine conclude that increasing the public's use of light rail transit (LRT) systems could "provide improvements in health outcomes for millions of individuals."

comprehensive study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a Canadian think tank, finds that public transit riders get three times the daily exercise as those who drive. Other health benefits of public transportation cited in the study include fewer traffic accidents, less stress and cleaner air.

10. Relieving Traffic Congestion

The benefits of more transportation choices extend even to people who drive everywhere. Recent research shows that trains and buses improve traffic congestion more than previously believed.

Critics of public transit frequently charge that bus and trains don't make a dent in congestion levels, but a study from University of California-Berkeley professor Michael L. Anderson concludes that "transit riders are likely to be individuals who commute along routes with the most severe roadway delays." The choices made by these individuals have a "very high” impact on congestion.

11. Curbing Global Climate Change

Between 1990 (when climate change was first widely recognized as a threat) and 2006, transportation accounted for almost half of all growth of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., with surface transportation accounting for 85 percent. By contrast, more than 35 percent of public transit buses on America's streets now are hybrid vehicles or use alternative fuels, both of which reduce CO2 pollution. 

If a person commuting 20 miles round-trip to work switches to public transit, biking or walking, it reduces his or her carbon footprint by at least 4,800 tons — which is equal to about 10 percent of all greenhouse emissions in a typical two-adult, two-car household.

Trains, buses, biking and walking help make a greener world through less emissions and also by encouraging close-knit, energy-efficient neighborhoods. An EPA report highlights the potential of public transit-oriented development to strengthen the environmental quality of our communities, land resources, air, water and wild ecosystems. 


Jay Walljasper is a Minneapolis-based writer, consultant and speaker who specializes in livability topics. This article is adapted from a report he wrote for Rail-Volution, a nonprofit organization that works to integrate transportation into the creation of more livable communities. Jay is also the co-author of America's Walking Revolution, a free book published by America Walks.

Published April 2015