Bikes, Car Shares and Buses: The New Transportation Era Is Here

April 18, 2012 at 12:03 pm
Contributed by: Chris

I have a short piece at Txchnologist this week which pulls together some data from previous articles and new research reports to outline how transportation transition is already under way as people increasingly turn to bikes, ride-sharing and buses to get around. Read it here: Bikes, Car Shares and Buses: The New Transportation Era Is Here


Bikes, Car Shares and Buses: The New Transportation Era Is Here


The 150-year-long growth trajectory of world oil production ended and flattened out at the end of 2004 while world oil demand continued to climb. The result was higher oil prices. Unlike the high prices of the late 1970s, which were driven by geopolitical events and a deliberate withholding of OPEC oil production, the new era of higher oil prices owes primarily to supply and demand.

The result has been a pronounced shift to alternative transportation options. Vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. peaked in 2004 and have been declining steadily ever since, both on an aggregate and per-capita basis.

Personal transportation spending has also declined, with sales of motor vehicles, parts, gasoline and oil having fallen more than $100 billion from 2004 levels.

As personal vehicle use declines, how are people getting around?

Alternative 1: Ride a bike

Car sales fell below bicycle sales during the recession.

Some, it seems, switched to bicycles. Government data doesn’t give us a direct way to measure this transition, but sales data show that as vehicle sales plummeted after 2005, bicycle sales jumped sharply and actually exceeded new vehicle sales in 2009.

New research shows that young adults increasingly prefer urban lifestyles and do not want to own cars; as of 2010, more than a quarter of 14-34 year olds had not even bothered getting a driver’s license, an sharp jump from a decade earlier. Although the available data makes it hard to quantify, a drumbeat of news coverage suggests that more people are choosing to live in inner cities where they can get around on foot, bicycle, or public transit, and eschewing long car commutes from suburbs.

Alternative 2: Take a train

Train ridership is up.

Even as efforts to promote high-speed rail failed across the country, train ridership began growing steadily from 2005 onward. This came after decades of stagnation.

Bus and train ridership increased by 2.3 percent in 2011 over 2010, according to new data from the American Public Transportation Association, reaching one of the highest levels America has seen since 1957, according to the WashingtonPost. And subway ridership was up 3.3 percent nationwide in 2011.

Alternative 3: Hop a bus

Many people who used to drive or fly between cities switched to buses after 2005, as the growth rates for inter-city bus travel show.

This option has become much more attractive in recent years thanks to the entrée of new operators like BoltBus and Megabus, which offer spacious seats, free wi-fi and power outlets, online ticketing, and curbside or transit hub pickup locations.

It’s also far cheaper than driving or flying. A ticket from Boston to New York on BoltBus costs $17 to $25; the same trip generally costs $200 by air. And it’s convenient: riders only need to book a seat one or two days in advance.

Alternative 4: Share a ride

Car owners used to advertise their empty seats on coffee shop bulletin boards – now they go online to one of the many car- and ride-sharing services to find and screen potential passengers, negotiate fees and complete the transaction safely.
It’s an increasingly popular way for drivers to cut costs on trips from 50 to 500 miles in length.

San Francisco-based Zimride is one such ride-sharing service, offering routes between major California destinations like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe. It also serves travelers to music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, and is active on over one hundred college campuses. In a few minutes, users can set up an online profile, use Facebook to screen each other and check references, and clear other important details like music and smoking preferences. The service suggests reasonable and affordable fares, and provides a convenient and low-cost alternative to driving with unused capacity.

Ride-sharing services are still a small market, but they seem to be taking off in some cities. Zimride is already eyeing expansion into Colorado and other service territories. A similar service, Zebigo, operates in Washington State and plans to go national this year.

There are also smartphone apps like Avego and Reward Ride, which allow users to arrange rides and complete payments right from their phones.

Here to stay

In the new era of structurally higher oil prices, alternatives to single-passenger cars and short-hop flights will continue to gain in popularity.

In the U.S., $100 oil translates to roughly $4 a gallon for gasoline. That price appears to be the pain threshold for many consumers, at which point they find ways to drive less.

But suppose oil prices continued upward, well beyond that threshold? What would U.S. consumers do if gasoline were $10 a gallon? (It’s not beyond the realm of possibility; gasoline already sells for $8 a gallon in Europe.) What if it cost $800 to fly from Boston to New York, or $200 in gas to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles?

Most air travel would die, and single-passenger drives between cities would become rare. The freedom and flexibility of driving alone would pale in importance, and simply getting there at an affordable price would become paramount. Rail, bus, and ride-sharing would be the only way to go.

While it is not likely that we’ll see $10 gas in America any time soon, it does appear that America’s romance with the automobile is fading, and that transportation is shifting permanently toward alternatives.

Top image: To Each Their Own Pace, Chicago. Courtesy Flickr user Chicago Man

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