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October 2, 2013

App-obsessed millennials help lead transit shift

WASHINGTON — It's here.

A report out Tuesday that foreshadows the future of urban transportation in the United States, but the futuristic vision, in a study by the Public Interest Research Group, already is happening in some places. In addition to car and bike sharing and real-time transit information available on mobile devices, the report cites ride sharing and apps that connect taxis or limousine service as harbingers of a transition away from the car-centric culture that developed in the 20th century.

"Places like Washington, New York and San Francisco are certainly ahead," said Phineas Baxandall of PIRG, "but it isn't only the big cities. There are other places like Madison [Wis.], which are taking off. There are hundreds of university towns which have really made enormous headway. University of Maryland introduced real-time information on its transit system and saw ridership increase by a quarter really quickly."

It is all seen as a significant shift in lifestyle and transportation made possible by technological advances and driven by a millennial generation that came of age at the dawn of the Internet era.

It is a generation that makes no move without mobile phone in hand, and mastery of that device has opened an unprecedented array of transportation options.

In Washington, for example, your smartphone can indicate when the next bus is coming, how many bikes are available at the nearest Capital Bikeshare station, and whether a Zipcar or Car2Go is waiting just around the corner. It can summon a taxi or the Uber car service in an instant.

A Washington Post poll of District of Columbia residents this summer found that 13 percent of those surveyed said they had used a smartphone app to call a taxi or limousine. Nineteen percent said they had used car sharing, almost double the number of three years earlier, and 21 percent of those who had not used it said they were likely to in the future.

"The new technology puts car sharing and access to car sharing at your fingertips," said Karina Ricks, and urban planner and former associate director at the D.C. Department of Transportation. "It's transportation where you want it when you want it."

The number of Washington households that don't have a car has risen to 38.5 percent. According to the PIRG report, each car-sharing vehicle removes nine to 13 privately owned vehicles from the street because car-share members sell off unneeded vehicles or simply don't buy them.

"What you're going to see is a demographic shift about what's important to the new generation," Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said recently. "It's not centered around a prestigious car or car ownership."

Baxandall said that shift is exactly what his new research showed.

"What we found was that millennials were reducing their driving by 23 percent just between 2001 and 2009, a huge drop-off in driving," he said.

Their decision to live in or closer to the urban hubs that many of their parents and grandparents abandoned has been central to an overall decline in American driving, he said.

"Now, it's been eight years in a row that Americans are driving less on a per-person basis," Baxandall said. "That hasn't happened in almost 60 years."

The District of Columbia and Arlington, Va. were early entries into the bike-sharing market, and the numbers of bikes and stations have expanded along with the network of dedicated bike lanes on city streets. The program launched in Montgomery County, Md. last week. The report says there now are similar programs in 30 other cities and at hundreds of universities. Car-sharing companies now have 800,000 members nationwide, the report says.

"Millennials generally want a broader array of transportation options," said Peter Varga, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association. "As we look to our future, transportation systems — particularly public transit — will be built around the smartphone. Smartphone charging stations on vehicles, fare collection via smartphones, WiFi, 4G access, apps that connect public transit."

When Amtrak installed WiFi on a California train line, ridership rose by almost 3 percent, the report says.

"Part of why younger people aren't as interested in driving is the relationships that mobile communication provides," Baxandall said. "Millennials and the new ways that they use transportation may alter the ways that Americans travel as much as the baby boomers did at the outset of the driving boom."

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