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Mass Transit Is Massively Popular: Brief Trend Or Long-Term Trouble For The Auto Industry?

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Transportation and the New Generation, a study by the Frontier Group

Transportation and the New Generation, a study by the Frontier Group

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Wise men say that the wheels on the bus go round and round. The men and women at the American Public Transportation Association agree, adding that the wheels turned a lot more frequently in 2013 thanks to soaring ridership on mass transit systems.

The question is: is this a brief trend, or does it spell long-term trouble for the auto industry?

2013: A YEAR OF RECORD-BREAKING RIDERSHIP

This week, APTA published statistics on mass transit usage in the U.S. during the 2013 calendar year (PDF). The most important takeaway is this: "In 2013 Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation, which is the highest annual public transit ridership number in 57 years".

Of course, it's important to keep in mind that APTA is an advocacy organization, dedicated to lobbying cities, states, agencies, and the federal government for mass-transit funding. As such, we should be wary of taking all of its statements at face value. However, the figures that APTA presents in its study seem fairly spin-free, and if accurate, they paint a clear picture of the growing popularity of public transportation. Among the study's major findings:

  • For the eighth consecutive year, Americans took over 10 billion trips on public transit.   
  • The number of vehicle miles traveled in 2013 crept up 0.3 percent, but public transportation usage grew 1.1 percent.
  • Since 1995, public transit usage has grown 37.2 percent. That number outpaces vehicle miles traveled (22.7 percent) and U.S. population growth (20.3 percent).

WHY THE INCREASE?

It's tempting to link public transportation usage to the economy: during lean years, the number of people riding the bus should go up, and during prosperous years, it should go down, as commuters return to their cars. However, 2013 was a period of economic growth, so the inverse relationship between national economy and mass transit activity seems specious, at best.

So, what other reasons might there be for the uptick in public transportation?

  • It's economical: During WWII, women joined the workforce, and it opened their eyes to jobs and opportunities that had previously been denied them. In a similar way, it's entirely possible that folks began riding buses and trains during the Great Recession and, realizing how cheap it was, continued to do so after the economy recovered. 
  • It's eco-friendly: No doubt about it, green living is a trend at the moment, and public transportation is often pitched as part of that trend. How long the trend will last, though, is anyone's guess.
  • It's attractive to Millennials: Not only is mass transit cheap and eco-friendly -- important things for the 18-30 demographic -- but it also meets some of their other needs, like allowing them time to socialize during their commutes. (It's been argued before that this is why they're not buying cars.)
  • It's part of urbanization: Today, more than half the world's population lives in urban areas, which typically offer greater access to mass transit systems. In less than 40 years, 70 percent of us will live in cities, meaning that demand for public transport is likely to increase. 
  • It's part of a long-term trend: At least two major studies have shown that the number of miles Americans drive peaked in 2004. The total number of miles traveled will continue to rise, so long as U.S. population growth offsets travel declines, but it's clear that as individuals, we're driving less -- and potentially taking more public transit.

For auto industry types, none of this is encouraging news. (Though they probably knew something was up when they heard that global car sales will go into permanent decline within the next ten years.)

With tomorrow's vehicles slated to look like self-driving iPads, how will Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, and others keep up? Can they turn profits with car-sharing, ride-sharing, and other schemes? Can they create alternative vehicles that appeal to tomorrow's urban-dwellers? If you've got some salient thoughts about the industry's future, share them in the comments below.

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