It's been a trend for years: young people are driving less. It's been blamed on the economy, on higher insurance costs, on congestion, but some think that it is because of the smart phone, and the desire to be connected. (Although Jim Motavalli writes about a study that says otherwise) As one automotive consultant told Bloomberg:

For most Gen Y buyers, also known as Millennials, skipping a vehicle purchase is preferable to forgoing technology. Smartphones, laptops and tablet devices compete for their dollars and are higher priorities than vehicle purchases, said Joe Vitale, an automotive consultant with Deloitte. Financing, parking, servicing and insuring a vehicle all add up to a commitment that cash-strapped Millennials aren’t ready to make, he said. “A vehicle is really a discretionary purchase and a secondary need versus an iPhone, mobile phone or personal computer,” Vitale said.

engagement with technology graphI think they mean commuter. (Photo: Chaddick Institute)

Now a new study concludes that smartphones are having a real impact on transit use. DePaul University's Chaddick Institute of Metropolitan Development (PDF here) studied the Chicago transit system and found that over 56 percent of riders were using some form of technology while traveling this year, three times as many as five years ago. They were mostly doing things that are illegal in the driver's seat of a car: reading, shipping online and using social media. They correlate this to the significant increase in transit use in the same period. Quoted in Mobility Lab:

“Sophisticated personal electronic devices are changing the way Americans use public transportation,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute. “Heavy users of mobile technology are finding train travel to be particularly amenable to their digitally oriented lives. Many relish the idea of using their devices from origin to destination, giving this historic mode of travel a new competitive edge.”

Just to beat the commenters to the punch, I will of course note that correlation does not imply causation; there are many reasons why transit use might have been increasing over this period. But the authors of the study conclude:

These observations are not intended to suggest that other factors, such as a strengthening economy, are not important contributors to the ridership growth. Nevertheless, the data does suggest that fundamental changes are taking place in consumer perceptions about the desirability of traveling by rail. The growing dependence on personal electronic devices appears to have altered the perceived “disutility” of spending time in a seat.

rocketman screen shotAnd I don't think it's going to be a long long time, Rocket Man. (Photo: RocketMan app screen shot)

For many reasons, transit and smartphones were made for each other. Using apps like RocketMan, I can avoid waiting in the cold or heat for a streetcar because it tells me when it's coming. I can use the time on the streetcar and bus to catch up on my email backlog. I also scan for articles to read and Instapaper them like mad so that I can read them on the subway, which does not have cell or WiFi yet. And l'm not alone; like Chicago, transit use where I live is higher than it has ever been. The buses, streetcars and trains are full of people like me who would rather look at their phones than drive.

To deal with these changes, the study recommends that transit systems become more airport-like, with charging stations, more comfortable waiting rooms and faster WiFi. And perhaps it's also time for more investment in transit infrastructure instead of highways.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.