Mode choice? There’s an app for that

By Mary Ebeling

For almost a decade, per-capita VMT has shown a flat to downward trend. But don’t be fooled; people are traveling. Transit ridership is up. Biking and walking for transportation continues to increase. Car-sharing and ride-sharing services are seeing a boom. New technologies, including smart phone applications and interactive web sites, give these intrepid travelers the tools they need to decode the mysteries of public transit and investigate the growing availability of non-motorized travel options.

USPIRG last week released a new report documenting the transformative power of these new technologies and how they are changing the way people make travel choices. Empowered with new smart apps, travelers feel confident about the train and bus schedule. There is a sense of certainty with the accessibility of real time arrival data for transit modes. Car-sharing and carpooling seem safe and accessible and biking and walking increase in attractiveness.

This technological revolution provides a major assist in the shift to more multimodal travel and a car-light lifestyle. For perspective, 82 percent of adults use the Internet, up from just 46 percent in 2000. Almost 90 percent have a cell phone, more than half of which are smart phones. It comes as little surprise that young adults are contributing significantly to these changes. Developers of new apps and web sites, responding to the stated preference of the millennial generation, provide information on a growing number of modes. Apps cover everything from carpooling, hailing a cab, car share, real-time transit information, bike-sharing, bicycling, and walking. ITS America’s web site on currently available apps shows an impressive list of alternatives in cities across the country. Currently, not all of the apps out there effectively cover every mode in the same detail. Given the fast-paced nature of the changes and the time needed to fully develop these tools, this is understandable. The important observation is that the market is starting to respond to these new, multimodal travel demands.  As the traveling public increasingly makes different mode choices than their parents or grandparents, changes in the transportation network are inevitable. Despite these early hiccups, there is an excitement associated with the changes.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.