Imagine having the freedom of mobility that has traditionally come from owning a car … only without the car.
Imagine being able to ride a bike across town on a glorious fall day from wherever you happen to be at the moment, to show up exactly on time for your bus or train with no waiting, to spend your entire commute connected to e-mail and the Internet, and to still have access to a car for a weekend getaway or to run the carpool to your kids’ soccer game … all while saving thousands of dollars on car payments.
Welcome to the emerging world of technology-enabled transportation services, the subject of our latest report, A New Way to Go: The Transportation Apps and Vehicle-Sharing Tools that Are Giving More Americans the Freedom to Drive Less. The report tracks the rapid spread of new tools such as carsharing, bikesharing and real-time transit apps, and argues that those tools – both individually and collectively – have the potential to allow many Americans to live car-free and “car-light” lifestyles with more freedom of choice and no sacrifices.
Now, let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the top. First, the cumulative impact of these services on the number of miles driven to date is rather small. Many of these services are available in only a small subset of cities, and have primarily been embraced by early adopters of technology. Some have only been around for a few years … others only a few months. The granddaddy of them all – fleet-based, round-trip carsharing a la Zipcar – is barely more than a decade old. And many still have yet to demonstrate that they possess viable, long-term business models.
Even in their infancy, however, these new technology-enabled tools have shown the potential to knock down longstanding barriers to non-driving modes of transportation and empower many Americans with new transportation choices. Nearly a million Americans are now members of carsharing services, and the nation has seen rapid growth in the availability of bikesharing and real-time navigation and scheduling tools for public transportation – services that were not available anywhere in the United States a few short years ago.
A small but growing body of research – summarized in our paper – demonstrates the impact of these new services in reduced driving and vehicle ownership and increased use of non-driving forms of transportation. But the real, transformative changes, I believe, are yet to come.
Here is why: Until recently, the vast majority of Americans had only one choice for guaranteed 24/7/365 access to mobility: a car that they owned (or leased) themselves. Once a family decided that owning a car (or two) was necessary, economic incentives drove that family to use the vehicle as much as possible. Why, for example, would someone pay $4 round trip for a transit fare when the vast majority of the costs of taking that trip by car – the car payment, taxes, registration, insurance, maintenance – had already been paid for?
Today, with the advent of new vehicle-sharing tools and transportation apps, it is possible to construct a lifestyle with the same access to on-demand mobility as is provided by car ownership. Even better, these services enable individuals to use the mode of transportation that is most suited to a particular trip at a particular time – a bike ride when it’s sunny, a bus ride when it’s rainy, a car ride when you need to go grocery shopping – and create the potential for huge household cost savings through reduced vehicle ownership. (Not to mention cost savings to society through reduced congestion, reduced demand for on- and off-street parking, reduced expenditures for road maintenance, etc.)
While the availability of this array of new tools certainly makes it possible for more Americans to go car-free or car-light, it is too early to say just how many Americans will take the plunge. But if the implications of these new tools are uncertain, they are also potentially profound. For one thing, as more Americans become “multi-modal” – using different modes of transportation to meet different needs – the old mode-based constituencies for transportation spending could break down. Fewer Americans will be “car dependent,” but fewer will also be “transit dependent.” Everyone will have more choices and everyone will have a stake in building a transportation system where people can access the places and services they need to reach using a variety of modes and tools, all connected with the aid of technology.
Even more disruptive is the potential for these new technologies and tools to expand access to non-driving modes of transportation to communities and areas of the country with few or no alternatives to driving. To date, many of the tools referenced in our report have been launched in major cities with large populations of eager young early adopters of technology. Ironically, these may be the places that need these technologies least – being already well-served with public transit – though they are also the places that have been most fertile for public sector investment and early proof-of-concept trials.
My colleague and co-author, Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG Education Fund, spoke with the administrator of a rural transit agency in western Massachusetts who talked about the potential of real-time transit information, smartphone apps and other tools to improve the efficiency of costly paratransit service and expand transit options for rural residents. Consider this: a real-time bus information app that saves me 10 minutes of waiting for a bus here in Boston could save a resident of Berkshire County an hour, due to the dramatically lower frequency of service. Talk about a major improvement in the quality of the transit-riding experience!
Governments and non-profits need to identify ways to integrate these new technologies and tools into their transportation systems wherever they have the potential to deliver societal benefits. As our own Tom Van Heeke and Elise Sullivan have been finding out, college campuses across the country are using exactly that strategy to manage their own transportation challenges. The possibilities for cities and metro areas to do the same appear endless.
Last, and of course not least, we need to consider the potential for these new transportation tools to magnify the shift toward reduced driving among Americans – particularly young Americans, who (coincidentally … or maybe not) have seen the biggest declines in driving and are among the most enthusiastic adopters of these new technologies.
Please take the time, if you have it, to read the report today. With the rapid development of new transportation technologies and tools, it will almost certainly be out of date tomorrow.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.