11 Reasons Why Trains, Buses, Bikes, and Walking Move Us Toward a Brighter Future

Jan 28, 2015
Dec 14, 2017
A light rail station in Santa Clara, California | By Richard Masoner, creative commons license

According to the pundits and prophets who dominate the media, the future of transportation is all figured out for us. Cheaper gas prices mean we can still count on our private cars to take us everywhere we want to go in the years to come. The only big change down the road will be driverless autos, which will make long hours behind the wheel less boring and more productive.

But 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 great recession and $4 gas, both of which hit in 2008. But, in fact, the driving decline began several years before that. (In light of these facts, The Federal Highway Administration recently reduced its forecast for the future growth from driving between 24-44 percent. This is after overestimating the actual rate of driving in 61 consecutive reports to Congress.)

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 transit use, biking, and walking. Although aging baby boomers, many of whom are less excited and less able to drive all the time, are also a factor.

Here are some little known facts about how we get around:

  • Americans made 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013--the highest number since 1956 when the massive mobilization to build highways and push suburban development began. These numbers represent a 37 percent transit increase since 1995.
  • Meanwhile bike commuting is up 60 percent over the past decade, according to census figures.
  • And people are walking 6 percent more than in 2005, according to the federal 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.

A close look at the changing state of transportation today makes one thing very clear: buses, trains, bikes and walking represent more than an efficient means of getting from one place to another. They move us toward a brighter future because of the numerous social and economic benefits they foster.

1. Stimulating New Development Along Transit Corridors

The development of most American cities was guided by streetcar 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 helps explain why 19 US 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 DC 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, which generated $2.5 billion in development (more than double the cost) before the line even opened last June, 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 7-mile route from downtown to a cluster of medical and educational institutions on the city’s east side.

2. 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 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 Berkeley planning scholar Daniel G. Chatman, who was once skeptical of the economic value of public transit.

3. Driving the Real Estate Market in a New Direction

A Recent 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 is 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 Chris Leinberger, a real estate developer and GWU business professor.

Among the report’s notable findings are:

  • 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.

4. 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 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 aged 25-34, 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 transit system since the Washington 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.”

5. Saving Money for Millions of Households

Transportation costs rival housing costs for many American families, especially those living in areas with inadequate 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 transit connections.

Commuters taking a train or bus instead of a car save $10,064 on average per year, according to an report by the American Public Transit Association. This is based on the American Automobile Association’s most recent 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 carshare programs make it practical for many more households to rely on transit, biking and walking as the backbone of their personal mobility, with carshare available on select occasions when needed. This reduces the pressure for families to buy a car or a second car.

6. Making a Difference in Economic and Racial Inequality

The economic benefits of 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.”

7. 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. The car is only one way to get around for these young people who are now entering the workforce in massive numbers.

They want a variety of transportation choices, including 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 new 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 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 16-24 dropped five miles per day (22 percent) between 2001 and 2009. Over the same period, the number of miles traveled on public transportation by 16-34 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 18-29 would prefer to live in a neighborhood with 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.”

8. Meeting the Needs of America’s Aging Generations

A transportation crisis looms as more and more baby boomers become senior citizens, with many of them unable, unwilling or unsafe to drive. So it’s not surprising that 58 percent of people over 60 in the National Association of Realtors study preferred neighborhoods that offer nearby transit, walking and businesses to those with large lots but no transit or sidewalks.

AARP advocates transit-oriented development and Complete Streets legislation (in which streets are redesigned to better serve transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians as well as motorists) as part of its Aging in Place agenda to better serve seniors who want to remain in their own communities rather than in segregated facilities for the aged.

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 allows you to get exercise in the course of your daily activities, rather than trying to squeeze a workout into your already crowded schedule.

Transit also boosts your physical activity. Almost all bus and train trips involve a walk on both ends of the ride. If you take transit just twice a day and your walks are only seven-and-a-half minutes each, you’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 federal 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 transit in promoting moderate physical activity. Researchers publishing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine conclude, “increasing the public’s use of LRT systems could provide improvements in health outcomes for millions of individuals.”

A comprehensive study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a Canadian think tank, finds that 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.

Transit critics 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. These individuals’ choices thus have very high” impact on congestion.

11. Curbing Global Climate Change

Between 1990 (when global warming was first widely recognized as a threat) and 2006, transportation accounted for almost half of all growth of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, 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 transit, biking, or walking, it reduces his or her carbon footprint by at least 4800 tons--equal to about 10 percent of all greenhouse emissions in a typical two-adult, two-car household.

Trains, buses, biking, and walking not only help make a greener world through less emissions, but also by encouraging close-knit, energy-efficient neighborhoods. An EPA report highlights the potential of transit-oriented development to strengthen the environmental quality of our communities, land resources, air, water and wild ecosystems.

Adapted from a report published by Rail-Volution, a network of organizations and individuals highlighting transit’s central role in creating livable communities. Since 1994, their annual Rail-Volution conference has helped citizens and public officials make their communities more healthy, economically vital, socially equitable and sustainable places. This year the conference is being held in Dallas, October 25-28.

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