Atlantic Cities

What the Rise of Technology Has to Do With the Decline of Driving

What the Rise of Technology Has to Do With the Decline of Driving
Flickr/davitydave

In dozens of small ways, emerging technology has been subtly nudging our behavior – at work, at home, while socializing or traveling – in ways that directly impact how people use transportation.

Teleconferencing has made telework more common. E-commerce has reduced the need to drive to the mall. Real-time arrival apps have made public transit more predictable. Solar-powered stations have helped bike-share expand. WiFi and smart phones have made it possible to get work done on a moving bus, raising the mental cost of driving alone. And social media, for some people, has reduced the need to travel across town to see a friend you might more easily connect with on Facebook.

None of these personal technology trends has really revolutionized American mobility patterns, and for that reason it's easy to overlook their importance in influencing how people get around (people are driving less because of... apps?). But taken together? "They really seem to be more than the sum of their parts," says Phineas Baxandall with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

He helped prepare a new report out today on the role of transportation apps and vehicle-sharing tools in giving more Americans "the freedom to drive less." The paper neatly dovetails with a broad survey of Millennial transportation habits also published today by the American Public Transportation Association. Millennials, after all, are frequently early adopters of new technology, whether in the form of route-planning applications or bike-share services. And as we've previously written, they've been squarely behind the trend toward less driving in America. It stands, then, to reason that the two trends are related.

As the APTA report frames this:

History shows that the combination of technological change, such as the advent of smartphone technology, television, or radio; combined with macro forces that shape behaviors, such as the Great Recession, the Great Depression, or World War II can lead to societal change that can last generations.

It's virtually impossible to quantify the cumulative impact of all this technological change on the decline in driver's licenses or car registrations or miles traveled (is "new technology" responsible for 15 percent of the drop? 30 percent?). Baxandall reasons, though, that "it’s definitely a significant piece of what’s behind the driving trends. But if you look to the future, it seems even more significant. All of these things are really just in their infancy."

Five years ago, you may not have had a smart phone. Your city definitely did not release real-time bus arrival information. Bike-sharing systems, at least in the U.S., were but a dream. Carry this story another five years into the future, and WiFi will be even more ubiquitous. Smart phone fare payment systems will make it even easier to use public transit and to transfer between modes. These kinds of technologies, APTA figures, will allow transit users to be more spontaneous, further eroding one of the main competitive advantages of the private car.

In APTA's survey of 1,000 Millennials in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, 40 percent said they work while they travel (you can't – or shouldn't – do that in a car). Forty percent of the survey group also did not own a car at all. And another 69 percent said they use multiple modes of transportation to reach a single destination at least a few times a week.

That survey suggests that Millennials have not entirely fallen out of love with the car. Asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, their preferred mode of transit, respondents said this on average (1 being most preferred):


APTA "Millennials and Mobility" report

But even as many Millennials will continue to drive, all of this technology means both that they'll be able to drive less and that the alternatives to driving will become more attractive. What we have yet to learn is what this picture will look like as Millennials age into parenthood. Some of the results from this same survey on that front were particularly interesting.

Here is the percentage of respondents who strongly agreed with the following statements:


APTA "Millennials and Mobility" report

Notably, only 27 percent of child-less Millennials said they picture themselves residing long-term in an urban setting, a decision that dictates many of the transportation modes available to them (there's no point in using a transit app if you live nowhere near transit). And so this is reason for caution in tracing these trends out into the future.

There's also one other big piece to this story of technology: Are cities doing their best it leverage it? Are they releasing transit data and pushing public WiFi and supporting the expansion of car- or bike-sharing networks?

"In thinking about technology as a cause for anything, I’m always a little wary," Baxandall says. "Once [tools] are created, they can make possible great changes. But they themselves don’t make the change happen. So far as technology is a tool, it depends on what people do with it and what kinds of systems are set up for it.

"The technology won't do the work on its own."

Top image: Flickr user davitydave.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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