Will the smartphone save public transit?
Public transit has long been undervalued as a mobility option. Thanks to new technologies and new ways of living, that's changing.
Mon, Mar 10, 2014 at 11:06 AM
Photo: James Willamor/Creative Commons
The other day, my North Carolina community was abuzz with news: Triangle Transit had received approval from the Federal Transit Administration to begin planning a 17-mile light rail route between Chapel Hill and Durham. According to the News & Observer, it's pretty much the same route that's been proposed by various community advocates for more than 20 years.
So what's different now?
While much of the talk about the future of mobility revolves around the admittedly stunning and wildly popular Tesla, or the promise of Google's self driving cars, public transit — a transportation option that has often gotten short shrift in the U.S. — may be undergoing a well deserved revival. The reasons for this renaissance are as diverse as they are disruptive, but they all coalesce around a central truth: well-planned transit is much better suited to the modern, technology-enabled lifestyle than the 20th century paradigm of universal car ownership, commuting, and suburban sprawl.
Smartphones and transit are a match made in heaven
look up transit options instantly, wherever we are, and we can track the exact location of the next bus, train or tram and plan our movements accordingly. E-tickets for transit are also promising to radically reduce the hassle and confusion associated with purchasing passes, as well as making transit operations more efficient and profitable.
But it's not just about increased access. Smartphones and tablets are also tools for productivity or entertainment. Why spend time stuck in traffic driving, when you can get started on your emails, catch up on the news, or do some research for your term paper? I recently met a man who had written an entire novel while commuting between Raleigh and Chapel Hill on the bus. Imagine the tickets he'd have gotten if he tried doing that in a car.
Technologically-empowered car sharing takes off
The car isn't going to disappear any time soon, but there are sure signs that we, in America at least, might be reaching the point of "peak car," where per-capita car ownership peaks and then begins to decline. Kids are waiting longer to drive, those of us who do own cars are driving less, and — crucially — the number of carless and one car families is growing. The rise of car sharing services like Zipcar mean transit users can complete that "last mile" of their journey by car, or access a car if they need to for groceries of other errands, but rely on transit for their day-to-day movements. In fact, one study suggests that every car in a car sharing service leads to 32 fewer vehicles being sold to private buyers. And fewer car owners means more transit riders. Carpooling apps like Lyft are also making things easier. You no longer need to worry about getting stuck walking in the rain, or getting stranded if the bus doesn't show — just tap your phone and you have a ride, with none of the hassles of ownership.
More walkable neighborhoods
It's not just modes of mobility that's changing. It's the distances that people need to travel. People are moving into cities at astounding rates, with some estimates suggesting that 9 billion people will be living in urban areas. That's more than the entire population of the planet right now. The popularity of urban living is leading to a shift in terms of city planning, with denser, more walkable neighborhoods becoming commonplace — neighborhoods that serendipitously make transit more viable. Here in the Triangle, for example, it always seemed hard to envision light rail because our communities were simply too spread out — why take the train if you have to drive to the station to catch it? Now we're seeing new apartment buildings and mixed-use neighborhoods springing up all over the Triangle, and it's no accident that many of them seem concentrated along the proposed light rail route.
Traffic jams suck
The flip side of cities being more suitable for walking, biking and transit is that they are really, really poorly suited car ownership. Searching for a parking place, navigating gridlock, paying congestion charges and other fees — none of this was remotely a part of the "freedom" that the motorcar promised back in the 20th century. From the growing realization in China that crushing air quality issues have to be tackled, and fast, to the sky-high popularity of "smart cities" like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, the world is moving toward a far less car-centric paradigm. Car companies are going to have to radically rethink their business models if they are going to thrive in the future that is emerging. In a fascinating Bloomberg article about the rise of the megacity, and what it means for car makers, Jeff Green and Keith Naughton argue that paradigms are already shifting rapidly:
Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, great-grandson of founder Henry Ford, in 2009 formed Fontinalis Partners to invest in mobility technology such as bike-sharing service Zagster and ParkMe parking-assistance software.“We’re going to have these megacities and they are going to have lots of infrastructure issues, not just transportation, but clean water and food distribution,” Ford said in a July 2011 interview, outlining issues the Dearborn, Michigan-based company said this month it’s continuing to examine. “If you look at every auto company’s business plan and extrapolate it out over the next 10 years, it certainly didn’t take me long to start asking the question: Where will all those cars and trucks go?”
The death of an icon
Every century has its defining icons, and the car was undoubtedly one of the most important icons for previous generations. Yet for young people who were raised on the Internet and mobile phones, who have lived through the financial crisis, and who are surrounded by the negative impacts of our fossil fuel addictions, owning a car often feels less like freedom, and more like an unnecessary hassle. While commute times and technology will have a profound impact on the viability of car culture, another, less tangible force may be at play too: we're just no longer interested in cars in the way we once were.
I, for one, am excited to see what comes next. For my community, it will look something like this:
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