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7 Ways Transit, Bikes & Walking Move Us to Brighter Future

04/27/2015 11:40 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

According to the nation's pundits and prophets, the future of transportation is all figured out for us. Cheaper gas prices mean we can still count on our private cars to take us everywhere we want to go in the years to come. The only big change down the road will be driverless autos, which will make long hours behind the wheel less boring and more productive.

But this everything-stays-the-same vision ignores some significant social developments. Americans have actually been driving less per-capita for the past decade, bucking a century-long trend of ever-increasing dependence on automobiles.

This startling turnaround is usually written off as a mere statistical blip caused by the great recession and $4 gas, both of which hit in 2008. But, in fact, the driving decline began several years before that.

Spearheading this trend of less driving is the Millennial generation, who after spending much of their childhoods confined in the backseats of minivans, is eager for a wider range of transportation choices.

Here are some little known facts about how we get around:

---Americans made 10.8 billion trips on public transportation in 2014--the highest number since 1956 when the massive mobilization to build highways and push suburban development began. These numbers represent a 37 percent transit increase since 1995.

---Meanwhile bike commuting is up 60 percent over the past decade, according to census figures.

---And people are walking 6 percent more than in 2005, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is good news for everybody because broader transportation choices are linked to a wealth of social and economic benefits. Buses, trains, bikes and walking represent more than an efficient means of getting from one place to another. They move us toward a brighter future.

1. Stimulating New Development Along Transit Corridors
New rapid transit systems are about more than transportation. They are magnets for economic vitality-- a major reason why 19 U.S. regions without train transit have built light rail systems since 1981 (and nearly all regions with rail have expanded theirs).

The new light rail between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul helped generate $2.5 billion in development (more than double the cost) before the line opened last June. Even buses spurs new development. Cleveland invested $50 million in the HealthLine Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line-- with specially designed buses moving swiftly in an exclusive lane on city streets-- and saw $5.8 billion in new development along a 7-mile route from downtown to the city's east side.

2. Driving the Real Estate Market in a New Direction
A recent study from the George Washington University (GWU) Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis suggests that auto-dominated suburban development has passed its peak. The greatest potential for future real estate growth is Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs), which depend upon quality public transportation and biking opportunities.

Among the report's notable findings are:

---Metropolitan areas ranking high for WalkUP districts have 38 percent higher GDP per capita than those ranking low.
----Offices in WalkUP districts rent for a 74 percent premium per square foot over those in more auto-oriented settings.

3. Saving Money for American Households

Transportation costs rival housing costs for many American families, especially those living in areas with inadequate transit service, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Transportation accounts for 25 percent of household costs in "Auto Dependent Exurbs", compared to 9 percent in walkable communities with good transit connections. Commuters taking a train or bus instead of a car save $10,064 on average per year.

4. Making a Difference in Economic and Racial Inequality
"In these times of high unemployment and unprecedented income inequality, transportation policy is one of the most pressing civil and human rights issues facing our nation," writes civil rights activist Lexer Quamie. Quamie notes that 19 percent of African-Americans and 13.7 percent of Latinos lack access to cars, compared to 4.6 percent of whites.

5. Meeting the Needs of America's Aging Generations
Transit, biking and walking are not just for young people. A transportation crisis looms as more baby boomers become senior citizens, with some of them unable, unwilling or unsafe to drive.

6. Boosting Our Health (and Cutting America's Medical Costs)
An often overlooked benefit of more transportation options beyond cars is improved public health. Biking and walking allow you to get exercise in the course of your daily activities, rather than trying to squeeze a workout into your already crowded schedule. And almost all bus and train trips involve a walk on both ends of the ride. Thirty minutes of moderate daily physical activity like biking and walking five days a week is recommended the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

7. Curbing Global Climate Change
Between 1990 (when global warming was first widely recognized as a threat) and 2006, transportation accounted for almost half of all growth of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, with surface transportation accounting for 85 percent.