The Convergence Between New Technologies and the Decline in Driving

According to a spate of recent studies, Millennials — a bigger generation than the Baby Boomers — are driving less than their parents did. But the underlying reasons are a matter of some dispute. Will younger Americans start happily motoring again once the economy is really humming, or is a lasting generational shift underway?

According to user surveys, Washington, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare has reduced driving by its members 4.4 million miles since the program began. Image: Creative Commons

The U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group teamed up last year to make the case that the “driving boom” is truly over, and today they’re out with a report that examines how new technologies are making it easier for young Americans to drive less. “A New Way to Go” focuses on how communications technology has enabled transportation advances like ride-sharing apps and real-time transit arrival data that make it easier for people to drive less and avoid car ownership.

“For Baby Boomers, driving one’s car represented freedom and spontaneity,” said Phineas Baxandall at U.S. PIRG. “Today — especially for younger people — owning a car is likely to represent big expenses and parking hassles. Meanwhile, technology and vehicle-sharing are making it easier not to own a car or for households to drive less. Public transit systems, especially with on-board wi-fi and real-time apps, can be the backbone of this new mobility.”

PIRG and the Frontier Group argue that smartphones and mobile communications have helped increase the relative competitiveness of transit compared to driving. Not only do these technologies make it possible to work and socialize while riding transit, they also make transit more convenient. Real time arrival data, where available, takes the guesswork out of waiting for the bus or the train: The introduction of real time bus location information in Chicago was shown to increase weekday ridership between 2006 and 2009, PIRG reports.

Meanwhile, with the growth of services bike-share, car-share, and even phone-assisted taxi hailing apps like Uber increasing point-to-point travel options, it’s easier for people to forego car ownership. As of 2012, more than 800,000 Americans were members of a car-share service.

The report notes that many of these new services and technologies “are still in their infancy” — the full effects aren’t apparent yet.

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group note several ways that policy makers can help unlock the potential of new transportation and communications technologies: opening transit data to third-party developers, adding wi-fi and cellular service on all transit vehicles, updating regulations to enable vehicle sharing, and, of course, making the core investments to create convenient, reliable transit systems.

“We’re not in a position to rest on our laurels,” said Peter Varga, chair of the American Public Transportation Association and CEO of the Interurban Transit Partnership, AKA “The Rapid” in Grand Rapids, on a conference call with reporters today. “Millennials generally want a broader range of transportation options. We must be ready for them.”

  • anon_coward

    i like my car but driving is a PITA most of the time. i’d rather sit on the train for an hour and read a book than sit in traffic and pay attention to the road

    and $4 gas and 2 kids means i’m buying from amazon more than going to shop for little things

  • Joe R.

    Interesting article. I think reduction of the need to travel is the primary factor reducing the number of miles driven. People can remain connected now without physically seeing each other. Hopefully eventually employers will finally get the message and telecommuting will catch on in a big way. Teleconferencing and telepresence will decrease the need for business travel. If telepresence becomes immersive enough, it might even reduce or eliminate the desire for vacation travel. In my opinion, it won’t be just auto miles traveled that decrease, but all forms of mechanized travel. Local travel to run errands is the only thing which won’t decrease, but as living arrangements become denser, much of that will be amenable to walking or biking.

  • Anonymous

    “We’re not in a position to rest on our laurels,” said Peter Varda,
    chair of the American Public Transportation Association.

    What laurels?

  • Don’t a lot of these points about technology improving public transit and bike sharing also apply to cars? We now have GPS on our phones so drivers don’t get lost, software to help avoid traffic jams, software to find parking, etc. etc.

  • Kevin

    I don’t buy the technology argument either, it definitely is nice to have real time tracking but it’s more like the icing on the cake for me.

    The benefits are the same as they probably were 60 years ago – I can sit back and relax, and get where I’m going in a reasonable amount of time.

  • Anonymous

    This article missed “Internet Mail Order” completely from the analysis. Though that sort of thing doesn’t really contribute to communities by sending money out of the neighborhood, savings on some of those items and the savings in gasoline does go back into the neighborhood. And I don’t really mourn the impact of mail order on mega malls.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t check email in a car…

  • BlueFairlane

    I consider that a plus for the car.

  • Anonymous

    I’m skeptical … without massive shifts in land use, most people will live and work in places that require a car to perform basic daily functions. People in their teens and twenties can more easily have lifestyles that require less driving than the average American, but as they age most of them are probably going to have kids and live in low to medium density areas.

    The dense urban areas where people want to live are already very expensive, and we’re not making any more of them in the immediate future. The suburbs are hard to retrofit for transit or biking.

    Telecommuting has been possible for a while, but very few people actually do it for any significant part of their total working time. That should tell us something about how effective it is in reality.

    Replacing retail shopping with delivery does seem to have some traction, but this is only a marginal shift. It replaces a bunch of individual car trips with delivery trucks, which is more efficient but not a true shift away from using cars and trucks.

  • Anonymous

    Painful as it is politically, older suburbs are being retrofitting for better biking, walking and transit, largely due to pressure from developers and government agencies to become more dense.

    That means that more people are able to avoid using cars for those short 1/2 mile – 3 mile errands that should never have been done in a car anyway: dropping kids at school, grocery, pharmacy, restaurants, kids ball games, etc. They may or may not commute by bike or transit due to long distances, but these trips are almost always local.

  • Anonymous

    I can “not check email” on a train. Of course, there are plenty who are in fact checking their email in a car 🙁

  • Anonymous

    Your skepticism is painful.

    “without massive shifts in land use” – that just sounds like “well, if it turns out that gas prices go to $6 a gallon, we’re completely screwed, turn out the lights, the party’s over”. Price signals can be brutally effective in impacting change. And this can be as simple as people combining trips or carpooling – actions that make sense at lower price points. So amusing to see people who take 2 separate cars to the kid’s soccer game because of some trivial reason then clipping coupons to save 50 cents on a frozen pizza.

    As for requiring a car to perform basic functions, I live in a pretty non-dense area right now, and we get along fine with one car, that we use intermittently. A lot of that has to do with making frequent trips to the smaller local grocery store than down to Santa Rosa for a big run to a large grocery store. We save in gas money what we spend in food costs, and the money stays in our community instead of being funneled to Austin.

    I telecommute and it’s extremely effective – aside from it being very efficient to start, I get hours per week back. And my employer is not using up real estate for an on-site cube for me.

  • Anonymous

    “kids’ soccer games” “but these trips are almost always local”

    But my child will suffer long term consequences if they are not on the traveling soccer team and doesn’t go to matches in Merced, San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, Orance County, and Fortuna!

  • Joe R.

    The reason telecommuting hasn’t caught on isn’t because it’s ineffective. Rather, the real reason is because bosses still feel the need to watch their workers like hawks even though it’s usually pretty obvious when someone isn’t doing he job they’re being paid to do. And then you have the stupid idea of paying workers by the hour instead of by the job. That model doesn’t lend itself well to telecommuting where keeping track of hours is pretty much impossible. In the end telecommuting works fine if management is onboard. That means paying people salaries to fulfill a set of responsibilities, and not worrying about micromanaging the hours or days they work, so long as they get the job done. Unfortunately, the idea that workers can manage their own time seems to be too much of a stretch for many in management, perhaps because it might make them largely obsolete. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s really what’s behind the animus towards telecommuting. In the end though I feel economics will win. That office space is very expensive. If company can reduce it by 75% or more by letting most workers work from home, they’ll do so. Once one company starts using telecommuting to its full potential, the others will have to follow suit to remain competitive.

  • You shouldn’t check email while driving a car. That doesn’t stop a lot of people, unfortunately.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve been working at home for over two decades. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I used to waste ten hours or more per week of unpaid time just getting to work. Moreover, the commute was often more exhausting than the job itself as it involved traveling the subways during rush hour. Maybe the one thing which might ultimately tip the scales in favor of telecommuting would be a requirement that workers be paid their hourly rate during their commute. Under that system you’ll see how fast companies will make sure everyone who can work at home does.

  • What Joe said.

    There are some jobs, such as mine, where one has to do laboratory work with expensive equipment, nasty chemicals, proper engineering enclosures, and safety systems. But there are plenty of times when that laptop doesn’t really care if I am sitting in my office in Dockers and a nice shirt or sitting at home in my underwear sipping a beer.

  • TN

    One of the interesting aspects of living in the SF Bay Area where many of the internet firms are HQ’d and where the hype is intense, is that these internet goliaths are building massive office complexes. Whether it be Google or Facebook or Salesforce, these companies feel the need to have all their workers on site. If these internet companies don’t find it effective to grow their companies through building a telecommuting workforce, what does it tell us about the true potential of telecommuting?

  • Anonymous

    Ah yes, think of the kids with special needs–like traveling to Merced or Fortuna every weekend for soccer games.

  • Anonymous

    These companies don’t have everyone working on-site. They use telecommuting extensively. However, there is an upper boundary beyond which telecommuting becomes detrimental to the kind of corporate-culture intensive, identity-strong environments these companies want to build.

    I know many people don’t like and some abhor the idea of someone being so identified with a specific company culture, but these are the people who don’t work at Google or Facebook…

  • Rob R

    The next step in all this technology is personal mass transit. This would be the movement away from owning a personal vehicle and converting to driver-less technology. For commuters you would just schedule an driver-less car to pick you up at a certain time and drop you off at your work and vice versa for the trip home. You would then get all the benefits of mass transit and benefits of living in a less dense area.

  • Agreed. It’s a great goal to present and perhaps even to work towards, but most of the retro-fitting suburbia proposals and conversations are great in watercolor renderings but do not represent the cultural shift and vast infrastructural requirements to actually facilitate a life with less driving outside of a city.

    Short of people actually returning to cities, I think we have a ways to go from fracturing people from their reliance on cars.

  • miguo



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