Seven Ways Technology Is Rendering the Automobile Obsolete

As we try to understand why young people are so much less jazzed about driving than previous generations, one possible explanation always comes up: Kids today just love their smart phones.

That is part of it. But the full picture is far more nuanced.

The internet, and the ability to carry it wherever you go, has changed society in so many profound ways it’s no surprise that transportation is among them. A new study by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “A New Direction,” illustrates the myriad ways mobile technology has transformed young people’s relationship with transportation.

Yesterday, we covered the report’s critique of government travel forecasting and its analysis of why young people’s driving rates will probably remain lower than those of previous generations. Technology is one of the biggest reasons. Here’s why:

Go ahead, check your stocks online – but not if you’re behind the wheel, please. Photo: ##,2817,2356247,00.asp##PC Mag##

Constant connectivity. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed at the dinner table or on city sidewalks, people have trouble putting down their phones. It’s not just compulsive Facebook status checking that keeps people glued to their devices. People perform an increasingly broad assortment of tasks on phones: make travel reservations, go through work email, catch up on the news, diagnose children’s ailments — the list is nearly infinite. While car companies are trying heartily to incorporate digital connectivity and social media into their cars, they still need to battle the fact that such technology is dangerously distracting for drivers. Given the option, many young people would rather take transit, where they can use their phones harmlessly, making far better use of their commuting time.

Alternative social spaces. Older adults may think it’s weird when teens would rather text each other than see each other, but hey, the world is a weird place. “A survey by computer networking equipment maker Cisco in 2012 found that two-thirds of college students and young professionals spend at least as much time with friends online as they do in person,” write report authors Phineas Baxandall and Tony Dutzik.

Online shopping. More and more people are making purchases online rather than in stores. Young people are leading the way on that, too. And it can be greener than going to the store yourself.

Real-time vehicle tracking makes the transit experience more seamless. Photo: ##

More consumer-friendly transit. Beyond the social sphere, technology is side-lining car travel by making other modes more attractive. Young people are less inclined to view transit as dirty and smelly and only for poor people, partly because the experience of riding transit is improving. Real-time tracking information, delivered instantly via cell phone, erases the need to wait outside in the elements for a delayed bus. Trip planner apps help riders figure out the best route without having to memorize maps and schedules. Modern transit fare cards make the boarding process quicker and easier, and can be replenished online.

Bike-share. The widespread use of smartphones has enabled whole new transportation options. Imagine a bike-share system that didn’t include real-time digital maps telling you where to find available bikes or docks. Or, peeling away another layer of technology, imagine one that didn’t have GPS locator capability or electronic payment and security systems. It would be like the free yellow bikes that were sprinkled around the Twin Cities in the mid-90s, then fizzled out a few years later as the bikes were lost to theft or vandalism.

Sharing of all kinds. Car-sharing services like Zipcar could not have thrived with 20th century technology. Every step of the way – from finding an available car online to opening the doors with your magnetic key-card – depends on modern tech. Peer-to-peer car-sharing can use lower-tech cars but still relies on the internet to connect drivers with car-owners. Internet connectivity also enables passengers to match up with drivers offering a ride-share. Plus, countless apps will help you hail a cab or even a limo from the comfort of your barstool.

Working from home means cutting your commute time to zero. Photo: ##

Telework. Telework saves employers money on office space, and it saves employees valuable commute time. The added flexibility of telework can be especially important to people with families and other responsibilities. It also frees people to live wherever they want – a friend of mine moved to Denver because she loves the mountains but kept her DC policy-wonk job. Teleconferencing makes it possible for people to scatter around the globe and still have face-to-face meetings when they need to. Online education similarly gives students alternatives to traveling to campus.

In all of these ways, recent technological advances have made it easier and more desirable for people to cut down on driving. They’re not reducing their mileage out of a sense of civic duty or environmental commitment; they’re driving less because there are simply better ways to do the things they want and need to do. And, as Baxandall and Dutzik write, it’s the young people – the millennial generation – that has most readily embraced all the ways technology can save them time and money. According to a recent Zipcar survey they cite, “25 percent of those aged 18 to 34 reported that mobile transportation apps (such as taxi apps, real-time transit information and car sharing) had reduced their driving frequency, compared with only 9 percent of those 55 years of age and older.”

It can be tempting to look at these new technologies as the realm of the young, but those young people will continue to demand more and more sophisticated technological solutions as they get older.

41 thoughts on Seven Ways Technology Is Rendering the Automobile Obsolete

  1. I love Streetsblog, I want to agree with everything you said, but honestly, but these are the kinds of pieces that make red state types loathe ‘coastal urban liberals’. This piece just smacks of red meat for the echo chamber. I mean, online shopping, really? Folks still need to get to work, and in the US – which is pathetically transit-poor as compared with other first world countries – that means driving for millions of people, every day. There is no political willpower to build transit in these places and the land use patterns probably wouldn’t support the operating costs, anyway. This is the reality we are living in.

    It’s be great if the author were to come back and engage some of the commenters, which is something I rarely see here.

  2. Given that most American cities still have nothing approaching a viable transit system, I find it hard to imagine that America’s youth have lost the urge to drive. If anything, I’d blame it on the banality of the average car, but then again, I look at my two nephews Facebook page and both feature their cars. Perfectly ugly, economy cars. Oh sure, they’ve put money into them, but they’re still economy cars, and both are as wired as can be. No. I don’t think this survey bears a grain of truth outside of the handful of American cities where transit reaches the level that makes cars an option. That so many are willing to believe otherwise is what worries me.

  3. Yeah, this is the intellectual equivalent of a Joel Kotkin hit piece on cities, kinda like the one a month ago which was so vigorously rubbished on this very blog.

  4. Both coasts represent a lot of people and car use is down nationally. Those are stats not anecdotes I grew up a car guy and still have a thing for them but the damage done to big cities by the automobile is tragic on so many levels. I am so happy to see the reversal of of many cities back into places where people get to be with each other.

  5. “Folks still need to get to work” What Tanya wrote about working from home is very true. My company has offices in four cities, with teams spread evenly across them so many people far less time in the office and more working from home.

    Another trend at my company: our sales guys covering the Boston/NYC/DC/Philly corridor have started taking the train instead of driving or flying. That way they can stay online while in transit. And these are middle aged fiscal conservatives, not millennial tree huggers.

  6. It’s not that America’s youth doesn’t like cars, it’s that a smaller percentage of them do vs previous generations. And yes, the trend is more pronounced in more densely populated cities. But that’s how trends work. They take root in niches and spread from there.

  7. “Given that most American cities still have nothing approaching a viable
    transit system, I find it hard to imagine that America’s youth have lost
    the urge to drive. If anything, I’d blame it on the banality of the
    average car”

    In other words: Trends show that driving is down, despite my opinion that most cities don’t have viable transit options, but i’ll continue to ignore the data (which does little to support my own statement about a lack of options) and continue to believe the american youth still want to drive (yet are clearly finding plenty of options that lead to less driving), but they aren’t because the average car sucks.

    Is that right?

  8. Here I am, James. This conversation is doing just fine without me, but I’m happy to chime in if you’d like. You’re right that the U.S. has a long way to go on transit, and that when we talk about a 40 percent rise in transit use we’re still talking about a very small overall mode share nationwide. But still, 40 percent is a very serious indication that people want to take transit and are finding ways to do so. People are driving less than they did back in 1996, for pete’s sake. 1996! That’s before you ever heard the name Monica Lewinsky. Can you even remember back that far? That was a long time ago. So much for the inexorable growth of VMT. So, yes, I do find these trends to be real and compelling.

  9. “No. I don’t think this survey bears a grain of truth outside of the handful of American cities where transit reaches the level that makes cars an option.”

    A handful is all it takes.

    NYC: Population 8 million. NY State, 19 million. So about 40% of the state’s population is NYC, well served by transit.
    Look at MA (6.5 million) and Boston (~600k), 10%
    Illinois (13 mil) and Chicago (2.7 mil, about 1/5th), 20%
    LA, 10% of the population of CA.

    Massive amounts of people live in these handful cities. And city folk are where the wealth is generated. If that wealth is not being spent on cars… Well, if I were a car company, I’d be pretty freakin’ scared that’s all.

  10. VMT starting dropping off when the Great Recession started. That has to be acknowledged. Also, if young people really want their smart phone, that will cost about $100/month for phone and service. That’s an expense that simply didn’t exist when I was a teenager 20 years ago, and one which cuts into a young person’s limited disposable income. If they could afford a phone and a car, maybe they’d have both, but instead they have a phone and a bike – not a bad thing, in my mind. I’ve never bought a car and have happily saved or spent the $5000-8000 a year it would have cost on better things (like traveling).

  11. Another factor in declining interest in cars is that they’ve become too technical. No more “shade tree garage” or backyard tinkering. Cars of 50 years ago were a lot simpler and parts were a lot cheaper. Owners didn’t have to worry about passing smog checks to renew the registration. Engines were made of cast iron, not finicky alloys. I used to drive a 1960 Ford pickup, which wasn’t much more advanced than my Dad’s 1929 Chevy. The engine compartment had plenty of elbow room (the engine was a straight-six, and many of these rigs had V-8s). Today’s cars have engine rooms that bring to mind sardine cans or NYC subway trains at rush hour..

  12. Well, I’m 53, but it would be hard to reduce my drive time further, since it’s remarkably close to zero. Haven’t owned a car for 17 years. Not that I dislike being able to check when the Muni is coming on my phone, but the bike suffices in most cases.

  13. “Today’s cars have engine rooms that bring to mind sardine cans or NYC subway trains at rush hour..”

    All that combined with the Starship Enterprise. I don’t think the complexity of today’s cars is the sole reason fewer young people have an interest if cars, but it’s undoubtedly a contributing factor.

  14. The fact that most American cities have lousy transit systems, and yet despite this, VMT is still down, is actually something I find amazing. Even though it’s often a lot harder than it is in places like Europe or Japan, people are finding ways to make due without a car. Anyone who doesn’t think this is a sea change in society is only deluding themselves. To me it’s as big as the change in mindset in the early part of the 20th century, when the car went from rich person’s toy to something the masses thought they would find useful. Now we’re seeing the exact opposite. Moreover, we’re seeing it by a group which is totally aware of how cars fit into the transportation system. They know cars might make their life a little more convenient in non-transit friendly locations, and yet they’re still rejecting them unless they have no choice. I’ve long thought the only way we’re going to significantly decrease auto use is if people voluntarily give up their cars. Certainly those in charge have little interest in changing the auto-dominated landscape.

    This is a grassroots movement which I suspect will feed on itself in a vicious circle. Less car use will increase the desire for alternatives. This in turn will eventually get politicians to change policy in favor of other modes besides the auto. As we make it easier to go carless, more and more people will do so. As fewer people can relate to the needs of drivers, less support will be there for car centric planning. It took probably 75 years for the auto to dominate the landscape. It will take a long time to undo this, but I suspect it will happen on a much shorter time frame than 75 years, particularly in large cities. All that has to happen is for one city to pass a congestion tax. The others will see how pleasant it makes things and follow suit. Eventually going downtown by car will be seen as socially unacceptable. The cities will be that much better for it.

  15. VMT starting dropping off when the Great Recession started. That has to be acknowledged.

    It started falling a few years before the recession.

  16. VMT starting dropping off when the Great Recession started. That has to be acknowledged.

    It started falling a few years before the recession.

  17. I’m sure that’s indeed the case in some circles. Also, I think electric cars are getting some people interested in cars who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in them at all. Electric cars might actually be the tinkerer’s car of the future in that they’re really simple-motor(s), motor controller, battery. It’ll be far easier for a backyard mechanic to tweak an EV than to tweak a gas car.

  18. You’re straight up wrong. Transit is still poor for casual travel, but most road trips are commutes. It’s pretty easy to figure out the bus schedule, and even if it arrives only once an hour, you’ll never have to wait more than 5-10 minutes if you plan your trip correctly.

  19. Commutes are the easiest bus trips. Bus schedules usually run more often during commute hours, and since you know when you need to get to work, you can plan your trip accordingly.

    Show up 5-10 minutes before the bus is scheduled, and you’re golden.

    Even better, you can read/fidget on your phone/nap on your way instead of road raging.

  20. My workplace has almost a thousand teleworkers and many of the rest of five thousand work from home couple of days a month. The teleworkers are spread out all over the place, Denver, Seattle, Fl and one even in Hawaii.

  21. Thanks for jumping into the fray, Tanya. I can’t help but ask, though:how much of the decline in VMT is a byproduct of the wealth destruction that has taken place among the working and middle classes over the last 10-15 years? In other words, is the spike in transit usage driven by desire, or necessity? My guess is that it’s the latter. For all of their nasty externalities, cars are still an aspirational good in the US even as acquiring and operating one becomes more difficult over time. The young people who are on the supposed cutting edge of this modal shift face what is still a rough economy. They’re sitting at home and playing with their smartphones and not buying cars because they don’t have jobs!

    To those who downvoted me: there’s an awful lot of evangelizing that goes on here, a lot of ‘The Transit and Cycling Revolution is Coming and We are the Vanguard’. Maybe it’s the dispassionate planner in me, but my BS detector gets triggered with pieces like this.

  22. Yes, there is a technological incompatibility with smartphones and cars. There’s also a lifestyle incompatibility—tomorrow’s old people are looking first for walkable neighborhoods connectable by bike, then for neighborhood clusters connectable by train, and last for areas they’ll drive to. And they’d prefer to car-share to those.

  23. The one piece that has not been mentioned. That is Land use. There needs to be several factors at work:old well planned neighborhoods vs sprawl: definition car needs to be used for fifty percent or more of your trips, if not then ride share/telework/p2p need to lead. In a well planned setting then walk/bike/bike cabs/Nev cabs and CarShare can be the way for mobility.

  24. so we all sit at home each day waiting for yoopeeess to deliver stuff? sounds boring, and who would want to do the work of driving a big brown van for slave wagss? since there is no value in work but there is 600x more value in having the job that dictates work value and 600x will be 700x soon enough, thanks to more lowering of slave wages or encouraging free labor regardless of name accorded it.. assuming others still have paying jobs to subsidise the 600x with…

  25. 1996? despite rush hour being worse… or feeling that way… if you are correct that would also mean fewer jobs exist… without jobs, where does government get its money to fund corporate welfare projects with?

  26. mass transit costs too much – look up which politicians say that. they can’t be bothered to think outside the box, or they’re bought and paid for…

  27. which is cheaper in the short-term: planning or sprawl? granted, long-term can be a bit different…

  28. The average person in the U.S. commutes 12 miles. That means 50% of the U.S. needs to travel 12 OR LESS miles to work each day. 12 miles is easily bike-able.

  29. And in a nice velomobile, those 12 miles can take under 30 minutes. Even on a regular bike, a person will gradually build up their fitness level to the point 12 miles should take well under an hour.

  30. I’ve been biking for quite a while, and my speed plateaued a while ago. I recently got a new bike, all steel, more upright, MUCH MUCH more comfortable than my old one. On my old bike, I averaged 12.7 MPH, though any trip over an hour or so started to become painful. On my new bike, I average less, at 10.8 MPH or so. My new bike is very comfortable, and I can ride for hours on end before feeling any discomfort.

    Perhaps on some plastic TdF-wannabe sort of toy I might be able to go even faster than my old 12.7, but probably not by much. I wouldn’t have fenders, dynamo-powered lighting, a comfortable ride, or the ability to haul 4 completely full paper grocery sacks at once. I’d definitely NOT recommend someone try commuting on a plastic bike.

    I’m young (31), fit, male and on something approaching a “sane” commuter bike, I’m hard-pressed to average more than 11-12. It’s not worth the trade-offs to go faster. I don’t see anyone making a 12 mile commute in much less than an hour on a bike, unless they’re riding plastic with no gear, lights, or change of clothes.

    That said, 2 hours via bike is 2 hours of moderate exercise AND 24 miles of commuting, in just 2 hours. Driving the same would take 50-60 minutes, and give no exercise. Then you have to work an extra hour just to pay for the stupid expensive car, so now the driver has 2 hours invested in their commute, and ZERO hours of exercise. Driving to work is just plain stupid.

  31. Average speed is highly dependent upon where you ride but in general, yes, speeds plateau after you’ve been riding consistently for a while. I’m just coming off four months of not riding all that much, and my average speeds are in the high 14s/low 15s for a typical 25 mile ride. Note this is in eastern Queens after 10 PM, so I’m rarely stopping. Obviously if you’re commuting during the day in more congested areas you’ll be averaging less, even if your fitness level is greater than mine. Anyway, last year when I riding 400-500 miles a month, I had gotten to the point where I could comfortably do 40 miles in about 2.5 hours (16 mph average). This isn’t much worse than what I could do when I was your age (I’m 50 now). In any case, you’re right that most people would be hard pressed to do a 12 mile commute in much under an hour unless they had a place to shower at work. I can hop right in the shower after riding in warmer weather. If that wasn’t an option, I would loaf along at 14 or 15 mph, which is a nice easy pace on my bike. Maybe I could do 12 miles in ~55 minutes at that pace if I don’t get stuck at too many red lights.

    Here’s what I’m riding (titanium NOT plastic). I bought it in August 2011. It was a big step up over the rusting Raleigh I had been using since the early 1990s. I’ve since made my own rear wheel fairing. That gives me another ~1 mph but the primary purpose is to keep sticks and other junk out of my spokes.

  32. No pics but they look nearly the same as the fairings shown in this how-to guide:;

    I used .06″ ABS instead of .04″ but otherwise I made mine the exact same way. I tried black tape as shown. It didn’t hold up so I ultimately went with 6-32 nylon thumbscrews. I made one for the front and rear. I haven’t used the front one yet. Front discs make steering a pain on anything except days with no winds. I know that because I tried it 20 years ago when I bought a pair of Unidiscs. The front actually bumped my speed by a good 2 mph at least, but it made handling a bear. I’m going to try a partial front disc and see if that gives me nearly as good aerodynamics without the twitchy handling in crosswinds.

  33. Not to mention the technology we used to utilize all the time: build buildings next to each other instead of spreading them out miles away from where people live. Cars are only convenient for long trips, hence why in order for them to be useful for daily use developers of sprawl had to artificially create large distances between home, work, shopping, etc for a car to make much sense at all. I travel in and around Downtown Mpls by bike and for example to go 2 miles south to hit up spots on Lake St it takes 10 min by bike; a car will shave off only 3 min but how much more are motorists paying to save a few minutes?

  34. How much trail do you have on your fork? Most bikes have a stupid amount of trail anymore, on the range of 65+ mm. The more trail, the more the wind acts on the steering like a lever. Perhaps a more classic French geometry with low trail (30 mm or so) would work better with a front disc. It’s nearly impossible to get a fork that has enough rake to have a proper low trail, I’m still waiting on a local builder to finish mine, actually. Only $200 or so (maybe a bit more once he puts all the custom work on it), so it’s really not much more than a standard factory fork, and I get to choose the rake I want (I’m having it raked about 80 mm, so I will have 32 mm of trail).

  35. That’s true. VMT started dropping when gas prices increased by 30%+ starting in mid-late 2007, peaking at $4+ in 2008, just before the recession started.

  36. When you have cars,then it will be really easy to go to your place within your time limit. So you cannot just blame the technology.Actually it is a gift for our generation. Anyway the seven ways technology help us by rendering those necessary things to us.

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