“Disruptive Demographics” and the Future of Public Transportation

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Shifting demographics, particularly an increasingly old population, will have significant impacts on the future of transportation, and public transit leaders must anticipate these impending changes in order to meet the needs of the future. That was the message offered by Dr. Joseph F. Coughlin—an expert on demographic trends and their effects on technology, consumer behavior, and innovation—at the 2017 American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Expo in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dr. Coughlin is the founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab, a multidisciplinary research program that focuses on boosting innovation and quality of life in the face of an aging populace and other socio-economic developments. A professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning and the Sloan School of Management, Coughlin has dedicated his work to understanding the interplay between generational change, employment trends, longevity, and technology. In addition to over 100 research publications, he co-edited Aging America and Transportation, a book focused on addressing the key issues regarding the mobility of the aging Baby Boomer generation.
In his keynote presentation, “Opportunity is Knocking: Forward Looking Solutions for Challenging Times,” Dr. Coughlin advised transit leaders of a world that is becoming increasingly gray, delayed, small, and female. “Demography is destiny,” he explained, as these four trends will have major and disruptive implications across an array of sectors, including public transportation.

A grayer, older populace—one which, despite age, values an active and flexible lifestyle—will demand expanded and personalized transit solutions across the growing lifespan. Transit providers will also have to cater to an increasingly delayed population, one which is putting off major life events—driving, marriage, household formation, and car and home ownership—in unprecedented numbers. As urbanization increases, particularly in small-and-medium-sized cities, and younger generations seek smaller living spaces and fewer possessions, transportation leaders must provide options that anticipate the changing work-live-play dynamic. Lastly, an increasingly female-oriented society, one in which more women are graduating, starting businesses, and entering the workforce, will have serious implications for tomorrow’s ridership and mobility.

In other words, tomorrow’s trains and buses will be shaped by the changing face and lifestyle of their rider. On what, then, should private sector leaders and public officials focus to meet the needs of tomorrow? Dr. Coughlin provided several key takeaways to his Atlanta audience. Firstly, they should prepare for transit demand to increase across the ever-growing lifespan. Demand will also shift as the nature, location, and hours of work grow more malleable and escape yesterday’s more traditional 9-to-5 schedule. Furthermore, tomorrow’s solutions must meet growing expectations for a more personalized transit experience that incorporates innovation and technology beyond commonplace smartphone apps. As more young people move to small-and-medium-sized cities—Ann Arbor and Providence, for example—investing in their transportation infrastructure should also be a priority.
In sum, today’s conventional transit operators will soon have to evolve into more comprehensive, interconnected, and responsive mobility service hubs to remain effective and relevant. An unprecedented level of technological and societal change will demand never-before-seen adaptability of our transit leaders and systems.