By on April 23, 2020

It stands to reason. Despite the ecological advantage offered by buses and trains, private vehicle ownership starts looking mighty attractive in the midst of a viral pandemic. Fear and self-preservation often trumps virtue.

So it’s little wonder that a significant percentage of people browsing Cars.com in the first half of the month were people who’s never done so before, and who’d never owned a vehicle before. With transit ridership at all-time lows and ride-hailing companies hurting, the private car is king.

It’s hardly the world the type of person you see on Twitter talking about Mother Earth cleansing herself (of humanity) wants to see, and certainly not a trend urbanists and transit advocates wish to see continue into the future. But these are unprecedented times, and plenty of people, at least for the time being, will want to look out for number one.

Finances allowing, of course. However, if you’ve followed these digital pages in recent weeks, you’ll know that incentivization is near an all-time high. Automakers want to move metal however they can.

As reported by Bloomberg, a predictable lull in traffic to Cars.com greeted the website at the outset of the pandemic, but it seems everyone and their mother was busy assessing their situation and making plans in April. In the first two weeks of the month, the car shopping site saw 20 percent of its traffic come from first-time searchers who regularly took public transit to work.

Exactly how that differs from a regular month is unknown, but it seems worthy of note. If crowded public spaces with stagnant air is a breeding ground for a virus that could leave you gasping for breath in an ICU, mass transit suddenly loses some of its appeal. At least until COVID-19 leaves us, either by natural eradication or via a successful treatment or vaccine, public spaces will carry a cloud of danger.

A danger that might outweigh the financial and personal risks of getting behind the wheel for the first time.

“Covid has pushed more people who don’t own a car to consider purchasing one,” said Alex Vetter, CEO of Cars.com. “The primary reason given was to avoid public transit and because of a lack of trust in ride sharing.”

No doubt Vetter wishes every newfound shopper heads to his website. If the pandemic lasts as long as public health officials say it will, there’ll be plenty of traffic — both for the site and on the nation’s roadways. When things get back to normal, the increased number of drivers won’t do anything good for commute times, though for the time being roadway congestion is the least of anyone’s problems.

Will those drivers fall in love with their new safety pods and the lifestyle that goes with it, or go back to the bus after the pandemic blows over? That question remains unanswered.

For Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen of America, the current situation undoubtedly represents an opportunity to automakers.

“We definitely do see a return to what I’ll call personal transportation and trust,” he told Bloomberg, predicting a shift in consumer thinking to “I know where this car has been; I know it’s mine.”

Indeed, that’s the motivation among those suddenly scared of their usual mode of transportation, though there’s no guarantee it’s a mindset that will last in the pandemic’s wake. Car payments, combined with a potentially rocky economy and the many hassles of commuting, will send many back into the warm, crowded, smelly arms of Big Bus.

But not everyone.

[Image: F11photo/Shutterstock]

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

47 Comments on “When Transit Riders See Buses and Trains As Plague Vessels, Automakers Hungrily Lick Their Lips...”


  • avatar
    Jeff Semenak

    I ride Valley Metro in Phoenix to work and back. I jokingly call it the Covid Express. Most days I am the only one or occasionaly up to 5 on board. As long as Federal money flows, the busses will roll.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    At the end of the day, there aren’t that many places in the US where the positives of public transportation outweighs the negatives. Honestly, the only place I have been where I’d probably choose it over a personal vehicle in this country is NYC (And I go places like Chicago, Seattle, LA, and any number of mid to smaller sized cities). Even in NY, I’d still own a car as I can’t fathom actually living in the city and making the sacrifices people make for the culture or whatever. The present situation only strengthens those beliefs.

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      +1

      As you said, NYC is the only city I’ve ever seen where public transit makes sense, and situations like the current one make it clear that is a dangerous substitute for personal transportation. I can’t believe the subway wasn’t shut down in the city, huge miscalculation.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        Cities in the US where transit makes sense for some trips for convenience reasons, even if you have the money to pay for parking:

        Boston
        New York
        Washington, DC
        Chicago
        Minneapolis
        San Diego
        San Francisco
        Portland
        Seattle

        Cities where this should be the case, and there’s no room for more cars, but the transit doesn’t work well enough:

        Baltimore
        Atlanta
        Miami
        New Orleans
        Austin
        Denver
        Los Angeles

        • 0 avatar
          Art Vandelay

          Atlanta has needed an outer perimeter for 25 years now. I grew up there. That would fix much of the city’s traffic woes. If you like Atlanta, but hate traffic, move South of the city. No, it isn’t trendy but then again the phrase “Stick a fork in GA 400…it’s done” heard over your radio will no longer make your stomach hurt.

          As for the rest of those, public transit was quicker in some cases, but frankly I’d rather hang in my car with the AC on for a few extra minutes in my comfy seat listening to the radio.

          I will grant you Los Angeles though. It is special. But honestly getting out into those canyons would probably still steer me towards having a car.

          But yeah, for certain trips you are probably correct.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            Atlanta has a pretty good public transportation system, but nobody uses it except to go to the airport, which was worth it for that alone. I don’t live there anymore, but I’m sure NO ONE is using marta at the moment

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            “but nobody uses it except to go to the airport”

            That’s proof that it’s not good enough. In all of the cities on my first list, LOTS of people of all social classes use the systems (or did before COVID, at least).

          • 0 avatar
            Art Vandelay

            People live in Counties where MARTA is not in Atlanta. Having said that, I lived in Fulton County and it would have been a pain to use MARTA. There is likely some racial element as to why Cobb County keeps rejecting MARTA. But it is also pretty poorly run. Take the Braves for example…for all of the hate and discontent flying around about them moving North, a MARTA station at Turner Field would have kept them in Fulton County. MARTA caved to the drivers union that rather enjoyed the overtime of driving the shuttles. When fans were asked about reasons they wouldn’t come to games, getting to the stadium was always high on the list. Even where Sun Trust (Or Truist or whatever) is now is easier to get to and it is in one of the worst traffic spots in the city. Like I said, I grew up down there so I hated it, but I get it.

            Anyway, yeah…MARTA could be better if either the outlying counties would let it in or they would better mesh with the regional transit systems in the outer counties. Nobody cares if you service areas nobody goes (Sadly, this is a solid chunk of downtown Atlanta nowadays).

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            marta has expanded somewhat north to include perimeter business district, so now you have perimeter/Buckhead/downtown to the airport all linked, but with Cobb and Gwinnett opting out it forces marta to be rather limited.

            Atlanta will never be like NYC and Chicago where people of all classes and color use public transportation, because it’s just the better way to go. Atlanta loves it’s cars and that’s just the way it is

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            “Atlanta loves it’s [sic] cars and that’s just the way it is”

            Nobody rode transit in Portland, either, until they opened up MAX and redesigned the bus network. People do whatever is most convenient, and as cities grow, cars start with an ever-greater handicap. If the traffic sucks in your city and no one uses transit, that’s proof that the transit sucks too.

          • 0 avatar
            Art Vandelay

            I am not sure the city of Atlanta proper is growing so much as the Northern suburbs are though. Yeah, trendy people live out at the Beltway and Little 5 is as freaky as it was in the 90’s, but by in large midtown is where the Action is. Downtown is sort of depressed and South Fulton is still the Airport and “oh lord please don’t let the car break down before Peachtree City” for anyone that doesn’t live there (Again, I am from down there…I know how people act) unless you are a Bazillionaire down at Serenbe (I grew up not far from there). Atlanta is like LA with respect to the challenges faced by mass transit…It is a bunch of far flung suburbs linked together more than it is a cohesive urban area.

        • 0 avatar
          Pete Zaitcev

          There’s plenty of space in Austin. The Schtadler train is purely a vanity project.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            “There’s plenty of space in Austin.”

            Then why is Austin up there, in terms of time its residents lose to congestion, with a bunch of cities multiple times its size? What downtown cultural institutions or residential neighborhoods would you raze to widen roads?

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        @Hummer: Obviously you have been to very few cities and none in Europe.

        In most large European cities public transportation made far more sense than driving a private vehicle.

        • 0 avatar

          This.

          I’ve lived in NYC and Boston, where mass transit makes some sense. In Europe, the system are what NYC and Boston could be if they kept building after, say, 1940.

          Outside those two cities, there is no mass transit to speak of. Period. We are just too spread out-and no, I don’t want to swap my three bed in the burbs for a tight two bed downtown, which is the goal of many “kill car culture” Urban Planner Types. You squeeze your family in there first, good luck.

          A quality mass transit system is worth it, so much so that I selected my house on a good rail line to the center city….but that line was built in the age of steam, and any area settled after 1950 won’t have any real mass transit unless the railroad was there first. North Jersey has a little train station in the middle of most towns…closed and abandoned. A rational world would keep those lines open instead of the buses and cars full of commuters to NYC, but we don’t do planning.

    • 0 avatar

      I think there are a bunch of cities where it makes sense depending on where you live and work. Places like NY, Boston, Chicago, and a few other I’m sure I’m not familiar with, it can be a lot faster to take public transit then sit in traffic. It’s enough of an effect to drive up housing costs the closer you get to train stations. Unlike say Springfield MA where only people who can’t afford a car take the bus, in a lot of these Metros the majority of riders on a week day own cars just take transit to save time.

      That said I’m sure this will drive up personal use and car services even in those cities. I also expect more people in dense areas of the city to try and move to Suburbs around instead. So far in the suburbs here in CT prices seem to be holding steady or a little bit up over the past 2 months.

  • avatar
    thelaine

    Pretty much agree, although I was carless in San Francisco many years ago, and the buses and street cars were cheap and convenient, whereas parking was expensive and scarce. In most places, mass transit is an expensive boondoggle. I’m fine with it, if riders pay full boat, but that is anathema to our chauffeur-driven political elite.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      I’ll “pay full boat” for my bus pass when drivers do too.

      Two hints:

      (1) Nearly all local roads are funded by general taxes. Gas taxes pay only for state highways in most places.
      (2) The oil that got made into the gas you put in your car is heavily subsidized at every step of the production process. The gas is much less heavily taxed.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        But those general taxes don’t get paid out of thin air. I drive…I pay the gas taxes…I also pay a “full boatload” of other taxes that find their way into the general fund.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        Besides, putting all of the eggs in one or the other basket is stupid. Planners need to realize this and allow for car ownership in their plans and shoot to minimize it’s use in crowded metropolitan areas. People are always going to come in and out of large cities. That is America. We aren’t Europe for the most part. Planning for that by making it easy to park ones car and come in via rail is a realistic approach. Pie in the sky uproot your lifestyle and move downtown approaches are not.

      • 0 avatar

        Drivers in NYC subsidize mass transit. A round trip bridge toll is $15-20. The money goes to the MTA, who runs the mass transit system. Every time I cross a bridge, I buy a few subway seats. Every time MTA needs more money, the fares don’t go up, the bridge tolls do. The NY Thruway is paid for by users. There may be places where what you say is true, but my $275 per month EZ pass bill is mostly paying for mass transit I’m not using-and the driving I’m doing is mostly impossible to copy by mass transit. The MTA is a massive cash hole, poorly run, and not reachable by any conventional protest or political pressure. Along with TBTA and NY-NJ Port Authority, the driver is a cash cow-toll money goes for a variety of non transportation projects too, like commercial developments or art on the walls. The next bright idea, Congestion Taxation, is again to…fund the MTA. Yeesh…. I’d be willing to spend the money, even pay it, if any of the three agencies were not totally opaque and plagued by scandal…while barely being able to keep the ancient tech rolling…no expansions…no repairs…I’ve seen first world systems in Japan and Europe…we are paying Porsche money for a Yugo.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I suspect that part of the reason there has been a spike in interest in vehicle ownership is due to the discounts offered on new vehicles and the reported drop in prices on used vehicles. People with stable jobs will take advantage of the situation for cost reasons more than fear of infection reasons. Those with stable jobs aren’t the one’s who traditionally use mass transit with the exception of some large cities.

    • 0 avatar
      TS020

      There’s also the drop in oil prices, whaich makes some cars cheaper than public transport (was the case for my diesel Fiesta, even at $60 a barrel), and the lower amounts of traffic.

      Great time to be a car owner now.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    I want to know how cars.com knows that those new searchers took public transit. When I’ve searched cars.com, and set up an account I don’t remember anything that asked me anything beyond email address.

    However I do agree that public transit ridership will be down for many years after people start returning to work.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    Mass transportation is necessary in high-density urban centers. Dense urban centers simply cannot accomodate the number of personally owned vehicles that would be required to get everyone where they need to be.

  • avatar
    dwford

    So we have in increased interest in individual car ownership plus economic issues. That says to me there’s a returning need for cheaper CARS. Might be time to get back to the business of figuring out how to make money on sub $20k vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m gonna guess the response will be buy used or longer loan terms. Once people get used to a certain level of equipment they have a tough time buying something with less.

      I used to work in recreational boating, this has been a big thing there. Boat prices have crept up with features that people demand, less people can afford them, so they sell less further driving up costs. Someone says I have the answer lets build cheap boats like we did in the 80’s and market says no and the models promptly disappear. There is some exception to this with small fishing boats but that’s about it.

      • 0 avatar
        R Henry

        Cheap, long term finance is a very dangerous proposition for depreciating assets, but I agree that contemporary American consumers demand what they demand. I also believe however that economic collapse is inevitable, and will be the only thing that can cure us of this particular illness.

        • 0 avatar

          In more proof that people aren’t always rational, making economics tough I can give another example that worked differently.

          RV’s. If you go to an RV show you will notice basically no small campers or pop up campers. There are few lifestyle ones but it’s not the core of the market. RV’s have steadily gotten bigger with more features. They have also held pricing amazingly low by virtue of constant cost cutting and volume. Now new RV reliability is pretty damn awful so I’m guessing cars can’t do that. And just like boats there are some exceptions with # vanlife etc.

          The only thing I haven’t quite figured out with RV’s is why buyers are so accepting of the faults. I have a feeling it’s because of the value proposition sort of like buying a cheap couch that will fall apart. It looks good in the store and man was it cheap.

          Which I guess begs the question if you took a SUV threw the cheapest materials low build quality etc you could get away with while still having a functional SUV but loaded it with features then priced it 25-35% below it’s competition, would people by it even if last about as long as an 1988 Escort?

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          I agree that long term loans don’t make sense for a depreciating asset but borrowed money is what fuels our economic growth. Some experts believe that if borrowed money (government, personal, business) were removed from economic growth we’d be stagnant at 1% or less. That’s the biggest reason why everyone is sh!tting themselves over COVID-19. The system is precariously balanced and functions as long as payments are being made. There is way too much debt.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Looks like a glut of used cars is coming, between repos and no one being able to afford current prices anymore because they are now unemployed. Plenty of cheap and good used cars will be around for a few years. Even a $15,000 new car won’t compete too well against a $10,000 Civic with 20k miles on it.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Or shared car ownership/membership.

      My daughter’s condo in downtown Toronto had zero parking for residents. About a dozen short term spots for visitors, and another dozen for Zipcars. If she needed a vehicle she would just use a Zipcar.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    At best, I would bet on things staying flat for automakers. Yes, fewer people will use transit, at least for a while. But I also expect as this wraps up, we’ll also see fewer people having to commute at all. Unless there’s been an enormous loss in productivity, no doubt quite a few companies will realize how much money they’re wasting on expensive real estate when much of their workforce could work from home.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      @Maymar – Businesses are going to realize that “work from home” is going to save them money. Teleconferences will replace meetings and cut back on air travel as well. I renewed my motorcycle insurance over the phone and emails. Way easier than in person.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    My youngest kid and I flew to NYC last summer (did your arms get tired?).

    Took a cab from JFK to midtown on the way in ($$ but was on the ‘to-do’ list). Did a lot of walking obviously but got better at riding the subway. One afternoon we took the subway all the way to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone (and eat at Nathan’s), another morning we took the subway out to Flushing Meadows/Queens Museum. It was great – no traffic and of course the fare doesn’t change based on distance.

    We challenged ourselves to get back to JFK using mass transit – wasn’t ideal with luggage but it worked.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      NYC, London and Paris are world class in this respect. They are really the only 3 cities that I recall visiting where I can get from airport to hotel with luggage all via subway. The Metro in Paris is my personal favorite. I’d probably still own a car in London or NYC, but I never felt the need in Paris.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I already had a personal dislike for mass transit but for the next 10 years or so you’d have to stick a gun to my head to get me on a bus or commuter rail.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      I agree and add a plane as well. I started thinking about all the times I’ve been really sick in my life and I discovered that each time was right after a long trip in a crowded airplane. No more, if I can’t drive, I ain’t goin’

  • avatar
    Don Mynack

    Perhaps it’s just inherently not healthy to live packed together on a tiny landmass that logically should not hold millions of people…NYC is great town to visit but hell no would never live there, subway and public trans filthy there, seems like it’s never cleaned. Even the air reeks in those tunnels. Are autonomous, self-cleaning cars a solution?

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Corey Lewis: Undoubtedly some good stuff in there, but the 2000-2008 period was a low point second to the Malaise Era.
  • SCE to AUX: “the United States, where take rates are higher and consumers appreciate salt-of-the-earth...
  • slavuta: “big sedan to visit the gallows. Nissan Maxima, perhaps? Kia Stinger?” Kia Stinger is pretty...
  • thornmark: Norm drives Buicks like all the other blue haired ladies
  • Lightspeed: I had a new ES as a loaner and was pleasantly surprised how much they’ve improved that car.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber