Report Shows Link Between Mobile Technology and Public Transportation

Oct 2, 2013

Credit Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

A recent study finds internet and social media use could be linked to a decline in private, personal transportation.

With advancements in communications starting with mail to the telephone and now the internet, the need for workers to travel has declined. That belief is especially true for the millennial generation, according to a nationwide report titled “A New Way to Go” recently released by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. Phineas Baxandall is the study’s co-author. He says broadband internet, smartphones, and real time information coupled with the emergence of cellphone apps and carsharing services like Zipcar have contributed to the decline of American drivers over the past eight years.

“It used to be that having a personal car was the key to mobility that was spontaneous and free," Baxandall said. “Now having a personal car often means expenses, the burdens of finding parking and worrying about changing what side of the street your car is on.”

According to the report, on average, Americans today drive the same amount we did in 1996, while mobile internet access has exploded during that time. Younger people are typically on the cutting edge of technology, and in 2009, the average American between 16 and 34 was driving 23 percent less than in 2001. While Baxandall says the economic recession plays a role in young adults not owning as many cars as in the past, the interconnectivity of social media has created a “sharing economy.”

“Sharing music files; selling old furniture through Craigslist, now extends to ridesharing," he said. “It makes people culturally just more comfortable with the idea of using a bike that somebody else may have used just an hour before.”

Nat Karns of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission says from 2006 to 2011, average daily traffic decreased by almost 3,000 vehicles near the Mass Pike exit in Lee. He notes historically travel decreases during tough economic times. Karns adds ridership numbers for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority have increased recently, despite a lack of funding.

“We have one hour headways between buses," Karns said. “The buses don’t run very late in the evening. They don’t run on Sundays at all. One would categorize that as a level of service of F. That’s not poor management, that’s lack of funding.”

Karns says in more densely populated areas like Boston and Albany people have a feasible choice between private or public transportation, while the transit authority can only reach half of Berkshire County’s population.

“If you’re a single mom whose dropping your child off at day care you’ve had an hour delay after you’ve run him into the day care center before you can get the next bus to get to work,” said Karns.

Last month, the BRTA reinstated a pilot bus run along Route 7 from Pittsfield to Williamstown after a decade hiatus. Administrator Gary Shepard says two of the route’s buses now have wifi, and people can track where the buses are via cellphone.

“There are several stops along the way that if people can call ahead we will deviate off the route and pick them up,” said Shepard.

Hoping to become even more convenient for riders, Shepard says his organization hopes to roll out a new fare system in January, giving riders the option of paying with The Charlie Card used by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. In terms of carsharing options, Zipcar does offer service at Williams College, but Karns says it may be difficult elsewhere in the Berkshires.

“If you had a Zipcar sitting down in the town center and you’re three miles up the country road, that’s not real accessible,” said Karns.