Why Americans Are Driving Less And What Smartphones Have To Do With It

The report by the Texas Public Interest Research Group, or TexPIRG, is part of a five-part series on Americans’ changing driving habits.

It finds Americans have reduced their annual driving miles by more than 7 percent since 2005.

The trend is even stronger in Texas, where drivers have brought down their annual mileage by about 13 percent since 2000. That year per person mileage peaked in the state.

Thomas Visco with TexPIRG says technology developed in the last decade, like the iPhone, is changing the way people think about driving.

“People are able to get real-time transportation information that makes it far easier to use things like public transit than back when my parents were my age using paper maps and timetables to figure out where their transfer routes were and how they were going to get from point A to point B.”

The study also finds that younger people are leading the way in the trend toward less driving. Visco says that’s not surprising considering young people are more likely to use new technology.

“Young people are far more adaptable and eager to try out new services and technology that make transportation easier. Things like car-sharing programs are overwhelmingly used by millennials, as are, the younger you get the more likely you are to own a smartphone.”

More and more cities are also offering bike-sharing programs. Here in Houston, the B-Cycle program launched about a year ago, and a smartphone app makes it easy to locate stations and see how many bikes are available at all times.

The TexPIRG study finds bike-sharing programs can have big impacts on people’s driving habits.

Justin McKelvey is the manager of Bike Barn in the West University area. He says bike sales are going up in Houston.

But does he think people here increasingly ditch their cars in favor of bikes?

“I don’t know about that. I think they’re trying. I think based on awareness, everyone wants to but it’s just not quite there yet as compared to, like, a Portland-type city, which everybody would love Houston to be like but it’s so sprawled out that it’s really hard to have that effect. So I think Houston is doing great to get there and pushing it farther than it’s ever been before for Houston.”

Thomas Visco says TexPIRG’s reports should encourage public transit systems to offer more high tech tools for their customers.

Houston Metro for its part is up to speed on the use of new technologies, including the Metro T.R.I.P. smartphone app, which allows users to look at schedules and track bus arrivals in real time.

Denise Wendler is with Metro’s IT department.

“Our ridership is currently trending up, I think it’s trending up around 4 percent or so, but, you know, no way to say whether that’s an improvement in the economy or more crowded roads or whether it’s actually our applications that are helping.”

Another question that some may ask is, if we’re driving so much less, why do we need to keep expanding our freeways to accommodate the flow of cars?

Well, keep in mind, the study says we’re driving less per person. And considering Harris County is one of the fastest-growing places in the nation, that also means a growing number of new drivers on the road.

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