October 14, 2014
A Perfect Storm in Public Transit Ridership?
Building multi-modal, comprehensive and connected public transportation systems has faced multitudes of challenges in the past. Depending on whom you asked, answers may have ranged from "not enough money," to "but we love our cars." Prudent investment into infrastructure systems has to rely on understanding behavioral and attitudinal characteristics of current and future users. That will eventually determine the allocation of investments across modes of transportation and ultimately shape our future.
A recently released report titled Who's On Board: 2014 Mobility Attitudes Survey, shines light on an important facilitator of riding public transit: attitudes. The study surveyed about 12,000 riders and non-riders in 46 metropolitan areas in order to understand the demographic and attitudinal characteristics that determine transit ridership. Young people - aged between 18 and 33, also known as Millennials - are twice as likely to take public transit as middle-aged Americans, and seven times more likely than those aged 60 and over. A survey conducted by AAA last year already pointed to an overall declining trend in driving (see the December 2013 post in our Archives) - suggesting that Millennials lead the trend with 23% less driving in eight years. While the AAA survey did not isolate the effects of the latest recession on driving behavior, Who's On Board accounted for that and suggested that even after the economic downturn, preference for public transit use continued. The latest large population cohort, Millennials, drove the attitude change. This is significant because Millennial will make up 50% of the work force by 2020. They also seem to be more apt to take the bus or ride the train even after starting a family. Choice of transit mode comes with their preferred place to live -mixed-use neighborhoods in mostly urban settings - where people can access shopping, schools, recreation, entertainment and other services by walking, biking, or riding public transit.
At the same time we should not forget about our other large population cohort, Baby Boomers, whose numbers in the 85+ age category are increasing fast. Although the report suggested that this cohort was less likely to take public transit - probably due to where they reside in suburban or rural areas with no access to transportation other than the car- a time will come when aging and disability will affect most everyone's ability to drive.
Surveys conducted by Regional Coordinating Councils in Massachusetts in 2014 indicate, that unmet needs in community transportation fall in two major categories: employment transportation and medical transportation. The latter unmet need came mostly from elder and disability serving agencies and community organizations. In order for people to age in place and keep their independence for as long as possible, the transportation industry has to do its best to work with other stakeholders that have resources as well as serve transit dependent populations, and bring transit options to the suburbs and rural areas. While current attitudes towards public transit suggest a seemingly widening gap between generations, this also seems to be a perfect storm and good reason to keep investing in our public transit systems: one generation preferring, another needing public transit services now and in the not too distant future.