Five Ways Market Research Paints Bright Future for Public Transit

At the Tuesday morning plenary of the Rail~Volution conference, William Millar made a bold pronouncement. The president of the American Public Transportation Association suggested that, beyond the 1,200 attendees of the annual gathering, there are billions of public transit advocates — they just don’t know it yet.

The popularity of car sharing is a good sign for transit. Photo ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/sierraclub/1526235627/## Sierra Club##

Millar may have meant the comment as inspiration, but consumer and demographic data seem to back his claim.

Over the course of four decades, the Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond, Virginia, has conducted more than 14,000 market research studies for clients like AT&T and the AARP. During a panel discussion on “The Shifting Paradigm of the City,” the company’s CEO, John Martin, outlined a convergence of measurable trends that paint a very promising future for public transportation.

According to Martin, Millar is right: There is a large and growing audience for more and better public transit. Here are the top five reasons we could soon see a swell of transit advocates.

Growing population: With the U.S. headed to 341 million residents by 2020 and 400 million by 2040, the population is growing. If the current trend continues, an overwhelming number of them are bound for the cities. “What ultimately will happen is we’ll have these urban villages everywhere,” Martin said. But more people means more cars, and tight budgets mean no new roads. “News flash: Congestion, access and mobility are really going to be challenged,” he added. In that context, public transit will be an obvious answer for new and long-time city dwellers.

Demographic sea change: We’re facing a profound generational shift and, according to Martin: “The dynamic is aligning with transit big time.”

First, there’s the boomers. There are 76 million Americans in that cohort and nine out of 10 say they want to age in place. “The question isn’t going to be, ‘Are boomers ready for transit?’” Martin said. “The real question is ‘Is transit ready for boomers.’” Lucky for advocates, boomers aren’t a passive bunch. “If you look at boomers, when we were growing up it was a time of plenty,” Martin explained. ”Our values are being in control and changing things we thought should be changed… We transformed society as we passed through it and we’re going to transform transit. We’re going to demand the things we want it to do.”

Gen Y is inclined to transit, too. “Gen Y is much less car centric than other generations,” Martin pointed out. Compared to their elders, folks born between 1982 and 1994 are less eager to get a drivers license, less inclined to purchase a car and less likely to view automobile ownership as a right of passage to adulthood. Some would argue the trend is based on economic need, the result of student loan debt and a tough job market. “I think it’s deeper than that,” Martin said. “Gen Y is hyper connected. They are literally digital natives… Eighty-eight percent want to live in urban settings because they can be hyper-connected.” Gen Y isn’t looking for a dream home; they’re looking for a dream lifestyle and that includes walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

Continued climb in poverty rates: The unfortunate reality is that 43 million Americans lived in poverty in 2009 and that number grew to 46 million in 2010, accounting for approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population. For low-income individuals, owning and operating a car is a disproportionate financial burden that can consume up to 40 percent of a family budget. Public transit provides a more affordable option. “And a major part of workforce competitiveness is that it’s hard to get people to jobs,” Martin said. “There are more jobs available than we have transportation to get people to those jobs. That’s going to be a huge issue moving forward.”

Green going mainstream: According to SRI research, eight out of 10 people want to live green. (Their behavior, of course, may not meet that aspiration). Many report taking more eco-conscious actions now than they did three years ago. “Where this is headed is, 20 years from now, we’ll be in a post-carbon city stage,” Martin said. “We’re going to be designing cities around green transportation, and carbon units — auto units — will be phased out. We’re going to compete in economic development language against other cities in how green we are.” That’s evident in places like Arlington, Virginia, he said, where SRI’s surveys show access to sustainable transportation options already plays a role in attracting and retaining residents.

A new consumer craze: Combine the shifting demographics and growing environmental ethic and the result is the “new frugality.” Call it responsible consumerism or just a determination to get the best bang for their buck, but Americans want more out of what they buy. In fact, in many cases, they don’t want to buy anything at all. “The manifestation of this is collaborative consumption,” Martin said. “We’re now more interested in getting access to materials or services, instead of owning them.” Look at the meteoric rise of car sharing. Look at the growing number of websites where people are sharing their homes and personal automobiles. Transit serves the same model, freeing consumers from stuff without cramping their lifestyle.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “If you look at boomers, when we were growing up it was a time of plenty…We transformed society as we passed through it and we’re going to transform transit. We’re going to demand the things we want it to do.”

    Prepare for the collapse of the NYC subway and bus system as “mass transit” spending shifts to free cab rides for those over 65.

    “Combine the shifting demographics and growing environmental ethic and the result is the “new frugality.”

    Also the growing poverty, high student loans, and diminished employment opportunities for the young.  Hey kids, grab a bike and put lipstick on that pig!

  • Hauser

    Hmmm….all of the indicators show suburbanization continuing and continuing. And we’re talking about traditional suburban growth, too…not “smart growth”. Take a look at any sunbelt city; Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston (the arch-example), Phoenix, Atlanta, Jacksonville, etc. This is where most of the growth in the U.S. has happened in the past 40 years and continues to happen. The few other places with growth are growing in sprawl-y, sunbelt-y ways (Washington DC, Minneapolis).

    I have a hard time believing that most people in suburban Houston will warm to the idea of taking the bus or the train to work. Car culture rules in the South and the West, where a third of the country now lives. Look at the examples used to point to supposed trends in re-urbanization or increased public transit use (NYC, Arlington, VA); they’re all outliers.

    The trends the author points out may yet lead to re-urbanzation and de-emphasis of auto-dependency, but it’s going to take massive increases in gas prices (like, say, $12-15 a gallon) to cause any widespread reassessment of our living and commuting patterns. The recent spikes in gas prices have shown Americans will just pay more at the pump; gas prices seem to be pretty inelastic.

    There’s also something to be said for the idea that we’ve simply suburbanized too much to ever go back, Americans aren’t going to abandon suburbia en masse. And this level of suburbanization makes any type of public transportation very difficult to implement and run, even “cheap” transit like limited bus service (let alone light rail or subways). A real chicken and egg problem. There’s no demand for decent/effective public transportation, so there’s no decent/effective public transportation, so there’s no demand for decent/effective public transportation…

  • Tom

    What cities are actively planning “phasing out” “carbon units–auto units”?  I’d be interested in knowing.

  • RichardC

    I’m highly skeptical that boomers are going to be a big transit market, since “aging in place” usually means staying in the big suburban house that isn’t pedestrian, bicycle, or transit-friendly. And are these lifelong suburbanites really going to decide to try out the bus in their old age, or are they going to keep driving until they total a car (like 2 of my grandparents did)?

    I’m much more hopeful about the trends we’re seeing in younger generations toward more multi-modal lifestyles, because much like driving for boomers, I think these habits will tend to persist.

  • Anonymous

    Larry Littlefield touches on my fear. If paratransit is required for all those who want it, that has the potential to be a budget-buster for just about any transit agency, but especially those that run lines into suburban areas, where introducing a single line would put the agency on the hook for providing paratransit to everyone living in the area. Perhaps this will lead to a rise in private bus companies not subject to these regulations, or some other unforeseen effect.

  • That’s very great number; it shows that we all very conscious
    towards our environment and we feel our responsibility at same time; going
    green in this regard is truly brilliant approach to save our earth from
    destruction.
     

  • Anonymous

    That’s “rite of passage” I believe, not “right.”

  • The Central Scrutinizer

    I am one of those aging boomers that has ridden the bus and transit in a number of big cities… and transit SUCKS. Its gangbanger transportation outside of the big NE cities and Chicago. Mass transit in the US is like public bathrooms – dirty, poorly maintained, and while not unsafe, gross. I’m not going to move into a tiny, overpriced condo in the heart of the city as I get older, and I will sure as hell vote against any politician that tries to push a European/hipster style solution for the “mobility crisis” (something that is being manufactured by extremist leftists to push a political agenda that makes no sense on the rest of us, like global warming, sustainability, etc.) on us. If you want to live in the City, fine – but don’t tell the rest of us what to do.

  • Reggie McPhee

    AMEN, Central Scrutinizer! I’ve had enough of the Obama-Commies as well. REAL Americans will never accept urbanism. Thanks for injecting some common sense into this blog. No one wants to ride filthy, dangerous public transit and live in a disgusting, overcrowded, run-down major city (populated by thugs, deadbeats, and illegals) when they can take their own wheels (personal FREEDOM, something the libs forget about) and live in the clean, quiet, safe suburbs. This isn’t Europe and real Americans will never accept their freedom being curtailed for bogus reasons like environmentalism or manufactured “peak oil” crises.

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