business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Inc. has a fascinating story about the connection between public transportation and one prominent retailer - Amazon.

According to the story, “Amazon takes public transportation for its employees very seriously. So much so that the company says it has spent $60 million on public transit in Seattle. And the investment continues: Along with paying $5.5 million toward Seattle's streetcar in 2012, the retailer announced last week that it would invest $1.5 million to increase bus service to its headquarters.”

Indeed, the Inc. story points out that the availability of a robust and accessible mass transit system is one of the things that Amazon has made a centerpiece of its requirements when it chooses a second North America headquarters city (dubbed HQ2).

The story argues that this is a priority with positive implications: “Decent public transportation can make a huge difference to the quality of life in any city. Efficient public transportation, especially if there's a light rail system, gives people an alternative to driving, which cuts down on both traffic slowdowns and air pollution. Public transportation is generally safer than driving yourself. It can save employees thousands of dollars a year, especially if it allows families to forego owning a second car. Because using public transit generally involves some walking, it makes them healthier as well. It allows those who are too old, too young, or otherwise unable to drive to get around on their own. And it's good financial news for the city, generating revenues for decades to come … Besides, cities with a well-functioning transit system simply are better places to live than cities without one.”

The word “city” is important here, since there seems to be broad agreement on the part of demographers that the US is becoming a more urban-centric nation.

That’s something that a lot of retailers ought to be thinking about as they make plans and move forward. Many retailers are built to be of greatest service to families in the suburbs with several children, living in a house with a basement for storage, and using a minivan or SUV to get around and do shopping. But what happens to these retailers when people move to the city, have fewer children live in an apartment and don’t even own a car?

I’m not saying that everybody in America is going to be like this. But more will, and this seems to be where the trend is going, at least for the foreseeable future.

The question is the degree to which traditional retailers, with legacy-centric ways of doing business, will - or even can - respond to these changes.

We know that some people are in denial about all this. One example of this was reported in the New York Times a while back, when it wrote about political efforts around the country to fight against the bankrolling of mass transit systems that have been proposed in order to deal with specific problems including too many cars clogging up city streets, pollution, and even the propensity by an increasing number of urban dwellers not to own cars. The anti-mass transit say that their position is rooted in a desire for smaller government, and government-backed transit systems require bigger government, and a deep-seeded belief that public transit is anti-freedom.

Frankly, I think this argument is silly. Even if mass transit exists, I have the freedom not to take it. At its very core, mass transit gives people without independent means a huge degree of freedom. Mass transit is pro-freedom … and, its existence recognizes a changing reality - that people are moving to urban communities that are becoming too crowded and require alternatives.

My point in simple. It is critical for us all to keep our Eyes Open to how the culture is changing, and keep our businesses in synch with those changes. There will be companies that will be very good at it, and there will those that will not be.

On which ones would you want to place your bets?
KC's View: