I realize that I’ve begun a growing percentage of my posts recently with a quote that triggers an idea. Instead of backing off from this trend, I’m doubling down. Here’s what a father said to me recently about his son…
“My son doesn’t really want to get together with his friends as much. They don’t even really play. They text, Snapchat and play games together on their phones. They don’t have to physically get together as much as we did because they have so many digital ways of communicating. In today’s world, you can be a kid have a meaningful friendship without leaving your bedroom.”
It’s funny, I’ve heard this before from other parents. As their kids get older, the same desire to leave the house and play with the neighborhood kids like we used to, just isn’t there anymore. The virtual world of online gaming, social networks and digital communication has become so robust, diverse and complete that the need to connect on an actual, physical level is simply not as important to young people today. Different modalities, ways of sharing common interests, hobbies and communication styles, climbing into imaginary realities, or simply sharing a laugh over video chat all make the virtual forum a more real experience than it has ever been.
Obviously this raises a plethora of questions about lack of physical activity, “screen time,” learning social skills, and a host of other issues that can’t be ignored. But one thing smartphones and mobile tech has changed is the way in which younger Americans are choosing to move about their world. The number of teenagers with drivers licenses has been plummeting for decades now, and while rising vehicle costs, stricter license requirements and other variables likely have a hand in this change, the smartphone world is likely the largest jewel in the crown of this social shift.
Teens are increasingly using Uber and Lyft, comfortable with the idea of being driven more than actually having to drive. And given the fact that ride hailing is a smartphone-based system, the method of travel works seamlessly into the increasingly digital existence that younger people are engaged in.
Public transit has become more popular with young people… again, this is likely due to the fact that cell phones and digital devices can be used while you’re moving about, instead of white-knuckling it with two hands on the wheel. Not to mention the responsibilities and costs of owning a car. Whether it’s ride hailing or public transit, the digital world can still be at your fingertips as you get to where you’re going, and alternative modes of transportation provide a cheaper options with less “digital interruption.”
And speaking of public transit, apps are making transit riding easier too. Even city bus systems now have apps that help riders find routes, bus stops, even get live updates on arrivals. Google Maps allows anyone to find directions via public transit as well, making navigating our cities via multiple modes of transportation far easier than ever before.
In general, smartphones have made services like ride hailing, car share and bike sharing possible. They have made transit navigation far easier. And of course, all these services (with the exception of car share) allow people of all ages to do work, have remote conversations, or just play games while traveling to a destination. Smart phones and mobile technology enable productivity, connectivity and entertainment on the go, so it only makes sense that “attention free” transit will likely be the wave of the future.
While there are a number of questions we must ask with regard to mobile technology and culture today, we can see a definite trend toward the desire to be moved rather than move ourselves. Cities and transit systems have a great chance to capitalize on this fact by building efficient, easy to use networks that give resident the timely, frequent service they require while catering to the desire to stay connected to mobile technology without interruption. Like it or not, our cultural smartphone addiction may be the very thing that moves us away from automobile-dominated culture, giving rise to the power of public transit and its ability to provide equity and efficiency to our cities yet again.