Networking, technology reshaping transportation choices

The best thing that ever happened to public transportation might just be the smartphone.

Everybody knows, or should, that fiddling with a phone, tablet or laptop while driving is illegal and inviting disaster.

Talking, texting or net surfing while riding a bus or train is another thing altogether.

More people — especially younger ones — seem to be doing just that.

According to a study by the Frontier Group, Americans between the ages of 16 and 34 reduced their driving by 23 percent from 2001 to 2009. That age group had the biggest drop in driving miles.

Overall, from 2006 to 2011, the average number of miles driven per resident fell in almost three-quarters of America’s largest cities, according to another study by Frontier, a think tank based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“Early evidence suggests that new innovations in technology and social networking are beginning to change America’s transportation landscape,” according to the study titled “A New Way to Go.”

Riding a bus or a train not only gives people time to use their gadgets, but those gadgets and their apps have tools to make those rides easier, with online schedules, trip planning, alerts and more.

In the greater Seattle area, public transportation ridership grew 2 percent in 2012, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council, a planning agency. The national increase was 1.5 percent, according to the council.

Local agencies such as Community Transit and Everett Transit lost riders after cutting service due to the recession and they have yet to recover, the council’s figures show.

Sound Transit has picked up some of the slack. Riders took 7 percent more trips in the last three months of 2013 on Sound Transit buses and trains than in the same period the previous year, according to agency figures.

Another factor likely turning people back to public transportation is the reversing of the decades-long trend toward suburban flight.

In 2012, large cities grew faster than the ‘burbs for the first time since the 1920s, according to an analysis of census data by William Frey of the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Locally, Seattle grew nearly 10 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to estimates by the state Office of Financial Management — from 608,660 to 626,600. More than half of that growth was in 2012 and 2013.

King County overall, and Snohomish County as well, bucked the national trend by keeping pace, each growing almost 10 percent during that same period. Snohomish County grew from 713,335 in 2010 to 730,500 in 2013.

Nontheless, according to Frontier, elected officials should take advantage of the trends and encorage a variety of options for getting around.

“Transportation planners should seek to integrate new technology-enabled services and existing transportation services into systems that provide efficient, seamless, door-to-door connections,” the study said.

E-mail us at streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your city of residence.

Look for updates on our Street Smarts blog at www.heraldnet.com/streetsmarts.

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