As love affair with cars wanes, Tampa Bay stuck in slow lane of change

Travis Kalanick is CEO of Uber, one of two ride-sharing services that are now accepting passengers in Tampa, connecting passengers with drivers via a smartphone app. Lyft is the other service.
Travis Kalanick is CEO of Uber, one of two ride-sharing services that are now accepting passengers in Tampa, connecting passengers with drivers via a smartphone app. Lyft is the other service.
Published April 18, 2014

Amid the parochial arm wrestling over what kind (if any) of mass transit lies in its future, the Tampa Bay metro area remains surprisingly blind to the bigger trend.

America's love affair with cars is waning.

Since 2004, Americans are driving less. Fewer teens and young people are getting driver's licenses. People are looking at a wide range of alternatives to driving, such as using public transportation and taxi services, car-sharing and bike-sharing opportunities. More people are moving to walkable, less car-dependent downtowns like St. Petersburg — witness the apartment building boom under way.

A tough economy is a big factor. Young adults, hit hard by the recession and forced to take lower-wage jobs, find the costs of owning a vehicle, pegged at an average $14,000 a year, can be too burdensome. Some folks are giving up cars completely. Others are adopting a lifestyle called "car light" by using their vehicles only when there are no other options.

Going completely car-free isn't feasible for most, says veteran auto industry reporter Micheline Maynard, whose new e-book, Curbing Cars: America's Independence From the Auto Industry, was released online this past week. "The idea instead is to live car-light, viewing a car as part of a transportation portfolio, but not the only way to get around."

A former New York Times bureau chief in Detroit and author of several books on the U.S. auto industry, Maynard says the idea of living car-light is fueled by changes in the economy, social practices, Web innovations and environmental concerns. Those changes "are being accompanied by some new transportation resources that weren't available even five years ago, such as bike sharing, car sharing and a wider availability of mass transit. Each of these developments, in its own way, has contributed to individual decisions to cut back on automobile use. Each adds up to a significant change in the way Americans view cars."

In an interview with Maynard, I outlined Tampa Bay's recent mass-transit history, including the rejected transit referendum in Hillsborough County and the November referendum in Pinellas County seeking funding for improved bus service and a 24-mile light-rail line. Maynard, now a visiting professor of business journalism at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University, was familiar with the Tampa Bay market. She started her newspaper career down the road at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Maynard argues that a failure by Tampa Bay to establish at least some level of coherent mass-transit system could have dire economic consequences. Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, are a generation that wants to live in cities, she said. Many have little interest in the traditional cycle of going to college, getting married, buying cars, having kids, moving to the suburbs and commuting lengthy distances to work, she said.

"You can make a pretty strong argument that cities need to be attuned to what millennials want," she said. "That is their future generation. If you are a city without mass transit in a meaningful fashion, these people will make decisions about jobs and lifestyles based on costs. And if that includes the necessity of buying a car — on top of college debt — then they may decide it makes better sense to head to places like Phoenix or Atlanta or Washington, D.C. People need to be looking ahead at these trends."

We've already heard such tales. Greg Celestan, last year's chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the CEO of a Tampa area defense business, tried to promote two young associates from his firm's office near Washington, D.C., to the Tampa headquarters. The two asked Celestan if Tampa offered transit options beyond driving everywhere. He told them to stay where they are.

It is an increasingly overheard business story. Many talented young people want lifestyles that do not require them to rely heavily on or even own a car. Zipcar, for example, is a car-sharing service prominent in major cities across the country that's popular with young urbanites. But it's not available here.

Still, a number of transportation services are to trying to expand here.

• Earlier this month, two ride-sharing services called Lyft and Uber, which use smartphone applications to connect passengers with drivers who use their personal vehicles, began accepting passengers in Tampa. While the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission has warned they do not meet the requirements to operate here legally, some state legislators are looking to amend those rules.

• Also this month, a bike-sharing company called Coast Bike Share won a contract to provide Tampa with kiosks with bicycles that, also via a smartphone app, rent for $5 an hour. The goal is to provide the bikes across the metro area.

Typical of Tampa Bay, change is slow. Especially if it involves a metrowide mass-transit system. Even if Pinellas County wins voter approval this fall for its proposed transportation package, there is no guarantee Hillsborough can deliver on its own transit package in the coming years.

There are consequences to our regional fiddling.

As America's love affair with the auto cools, young people want better transportation options. Metro areas that refuse to tackle the challenge of quality mass transit may find themselves deemed irrelevant by the best-run businesses that want to operate where the most innovative workers choose to live.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at