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The “mystery factor” driving faster patronage growth on public transport may be Gen Y’s enthusiasm for staying connected through smartphones. Speaking to a reporter from The West Australian last week, Professor Peter Newman argued that previous generations found freedom and flexibility through the car, but generation Ys find freedom and flexibility by staying connected to friends, family and workplaces through information devices like laptops or iPhones.

He went on to say: “They can stay connected on a bus or a train. They can bring the office with them. They can bring their study with them. They can’t if they’re driving.” The same news report also quotes a spokesperson from WA’s Public Transport Authority who says commuters aged 18-25  now make up 35% of all train users and 40% of all bus users, up from 30% and 38% respectively last year. As this same age group constitutes just 13% of all Australians aged over 17, that’s a phenomenal set of numbers.

Frankly, I’m a little sceptical about the claim that the patronage share of trains in Perth has risen five percentage points in just one year, but since I can’t find any other relevant information on the age profile of public transport users, I’ll (conditionally) go with it. However, I’m in no way sceptical of the proposition that new technologies make public transport more attractive than it used to be. Like reading before it, the mobile phone was a big step forward in the 90s and now 3G means travellers can do even more things on the train or bus. Bring on free Wi-Fi — I hear even some stations on Sydney’s otherwise sad and sorry rail system have this facility.

I’m not convinced, though, that access to communication and entertainment technologies is the potent driver of young adult patronage that Professor Newman takes it to be. A much more likely driver, I think, is Gen Y’s falling interest in cars. It seems eminently plausible that if young adults aren’t driving as much as previous generations then they’re likely to be using public transport more. This is a topic I’ve discussed before in more detail, but in summary there is a range of reasons why members of Gen Y (born between 1982 and 2001) are driving less than previous generations. The key ones are:

  • Higher levels of regulation means it’s a lot harder to get a licence today than it used to be — it takes longer and it’s more expensive.
  • It’s riskier to drive. Penalties for driving while under the influence of drink or drugs are harsher. Fines for traffic offences are now large enough to have a severe impact on the budgets of students or junior workers.
  • A higher proportion of young adults are students who can’t afford a car. They stay longer in tertiary education and have to pay higher rents than ever, as well cover the cost of new “essentials” such as smartphones.
  • They have children at a later age and consequently not as many need a car for tasks like taking kids to child care and family shopping.
  • More are living and/or working in the inner city and inner suburbs where it’s getting harder to park and where spreading traffic congestion makes driving less attractive.
  • There are larger numbers of young migrants and overseas students who are more habituated to public transport than Australians generally are.
  • Cars are now more of a commodity, like dishwashers. There are other ways to signify “cool” or demonstrate status, most of them cheaper than a car
  • Young adults live at home longer than previous generations. It’s not worth shelling out for a personal car when mum or dad’s can be borrowed on important occasions.

While individually none of these factors might be thought to have a large impact, taken together they provide a credible explanation for Gen Y’s greater use of public transport. They would drive higher public transport patronage even if the quality of service — another factor contributing to higher patronage — hadn’t improved over at least the last five to ten years.

Of course the advent of technology such as smartphones has also added to public transport’s appeal — like reading, it has made the opportunity cost of time spent on trains, trams, buses and ferries less expensive, adding to their appeal for those who value technology. Yet there are reasons why the attractiveness of technology shouldn’t be exaggerated (again, this is a topic I’ve discussed before in more detail):

  • It’s harder to use any form of technology for a productive purpose when a train is crowded. You can’t send text messages easily on an iPhone, much less use a netbook, when you’re hanging from a strap. Peak hour is — and always will be — a crush.
  • The scope for using a mobile phone in public on a train or bus is largely limited to routine matters. Most people prefer to keep important business or personal matters private. The car has a distinct advantage here (hands-free, of course!).
  • Time spent at home or at the office will be more productive than time spent in-vehicle for most people. As public transport on average is significantly slower than driving, the latter will provide more time at the journey origin or destination, particularly for the 80%-90% of jobs that aren’t located in the city centre, or for trips to suburban universities.

So unlike Professor Newman, I’m not persuaded that technology is the key reason why Gen Y is using public transport more than previous generations. Technology makes public transport more attractive but it’s only part of the equation and it’s not of itself a key driver of mode choice. Public transport companies and agencies should certainly be thinking about initiatives like free Wi-Fi as part of their marketing effort, but they’re likely to cock up if that displaces their focus on the fundamentals.

In any event it’s a myth that technology is only of interest to Gen Y. Take a look at your fellow train passengers and you’ll see as many baby boomers and Gen Xers are using netbooks and iPhones. And you’d have to be a Luddite to think Facebook and Twitter are only used by people born between 1982 and 2001.

Finally, Professor Newman’s contention that the smartphone is Gen Y’s equivalent of what the car meant for previous generations is a very big call, but it’s a discussion for another time. And I’d really like to get some objective and reliable data on just how many young adults actually are using public transport as their main means of travel.

*This first appeared at The Melbourne Urbanist