When Transit Riders See Buses and Trains As Plague Vessels, Automakers Hungrily Lick Their Lips

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
when transit riders see buses and trains as plague vessels automakers hungrily lick

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]

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3 of 47 comments
  • Ajla Ajla on Apr 23, 2020

    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.

    • Lie2me Lie2me on Apr 23, 2020

      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'

  • Don Mynack Don Mynack on Apr 24, 2020

    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?