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Seeking New Solutions for Demographic Changes

Dr. Joseph Coughlin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology brought his unique perspective on disruptive demographics to the 2017 Annual Meeting as the keynote speaker at an afternoon session Oct. 9, with a presentation titled “Opportunity Is Knocking: Forward Looking Solutions for Challenging Times.”

As the founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, Coughlin specializes in studying how the convergence of baby boomer expectations and new technologies will shape public policy and drive innovation, notably in the transportation sector.

He explained that there is more to demographics than an aging population; the real challenge for public transportation agencies is to have the ability to anticipate and expand to meet new expectations. Coughlin told the audience that the future is:

* gray (by 2047, the world will have more people over age 60 than children up to age 16);
* delayed (due to the postponement of factors that drive transportation decisions, such as marriage, having children and creating a household);
* small (a growing number of people live alone, which will influence city planning, real estate values, marketing and product development); and
* female (women are more likely to live longer, travel, start a business and make most consumer decisions).

“Transportation is activity-based,” Coughlin said. “The driver of mobility—the drive to want to go someplace—is education, income and health … and we’ve never had an aging population this large, with this much education, this much wealth and health, and with lots of things to do.”

According to Coughlin, the multiple generations in the workplace and in the general population want access to experiences rather than a desire to own a car or house. “Brands like Google, Amazon, IBM, Uber, Comcast and others … these are the new people who will own the platforms that are going to direct riders to or from public transportation and control the activities we pursue,” he said.

He urged the public transportation industry to anticipate the following:

Panelists, from left: moderator Flora Castillo, Roger Millar, Dana L. Lemon, Stephen Bland and Douglas Hooker.

Photos by Mitchell Wood

* Transit demand will rise over people’s lifespan, especially as the aging population stays active.
* The journey to work is no longer the historic 9 to 5; now it’s 24/7.
* People will demand a personalized rider experience because that is the new normal for other service providers. “Public transportation’s competition is not the car or another transit provider; it’s what I experience as a consumer everywhere else,” said Coughlin.
* Customers expect more than an app. They want transportation technology that will connect them to many other mobility services and providers.
* Infrastructure demand will grow in mid-size and smaller areas, where today public transportation has fewer resources. This will lead to a debate about financing and taxes.
* The workforce will be more female and older and there will be fewer careers.
* Public transportation is on the cusp of a frontier where the focus will move from ridership to becoming mobility hubs. “Think of yourselves as the new air traffic control for mobility, not infrastructure,” he recommended.

Following Coughlin’s presentation, former APTA Chair Flora Castillo, a New Jersey Transit Corporation board member, moderated a follow-up panel discussion on a wide range of trends that will impact public transportation.

Panelists included Roger Millar, Washington State secretary of transportation; Dana L. Lemon, a member of the State Transportation Board, Oregon DOT; Stephen Bland, chief executive officer, Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Middle Tennessee Regional Transportation Authority; and Douglas Hooker, executive director, Atlanta Regional Commission.
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