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People are driving less, aided by technology

Every year from the end of World War II through the 1990s, the typical American drove more miles each year than the year before. But for the first time in two generations there has been a significant shift in how many miles we are driving each year.

In 2011, the average Arizonan drove 9.3 percent fewer miles per year than in 2006, which was when per-capita driving in our state peaked. That’s a dramatic drop in a short amount of time.

Young people have led this trend away from driving and are far more likely to seek alternatives to driving than previous generations. Because of demographic changes, this shift away from automobiles appears likely to be long-lasting, even once our economy fully recovers. Baby Boomers are nearing retirement and moving out of the phase of their lives when they do the most commuting, just as members of the Millenial generation are moving into the commuting phase of their lives.

Millennials are more open to non-driving forms of transportation — such as walking, biking, and public transportation — than older generations. The average young person drove 20 percent fewer miles in 2009 than the average young person in 2001. Millennials are also more likely to want to live in urban and walkable neighborhoods. These trends are particularly important for Arizona’s leaders to pay attention to because of the number of young people in our state.

Personal auto ownership used to be the clear ticket to mobility. For Baby Boomers, driving a car represented freedom and spontaneity. But today — especially for younger people — owning a car increasingly represents big expenses and parking hassles.

A new study released this week by the Arizona PIRG Education Fund shows that improvements in technology and vehicle-sharing services have made it easier to get around without a car. In the past, people often felt little choice but to depend on personal cars. New technology tools make it easier not to own a car or own fewer cars among a family. Real-time phone apps, as well as car-sharing, bike-sharing and ride-sharing, have spread rapidly in recent years.

Young people have consistently been the first to adopt and test these new technologies and practices. Our report provides policymakers with a number of recommendations to leverage these advances in technology, such as installing more wi-fi on public transit and integrating bike and car sharing into traffic management plans and near transit stations.

In Arizona, these technological tools and practices are still in their infancy, but spreading fast. Valley Metro’s “NextRide” service allows riders to call or text to get the next arrival times for their bus or light rail train. The Smartphone app “Find My Train” was created by a Phoenix-based graphic designer to allow transit riders to find out when their next light rail train is scheduled to arrive with one click. And in December, Phoenix will join the more than 30 U.S. cities with bike-share programs.

These new driving trends will have huge implications for Arizonans. Our leaders must recognize the momentous changes in transportation that have taken place. The infrastructure we build today will mainly be used and paid for by the Millennials who are leading the trend away from driving.

If local governments, the state of Arizona, and our federal government want to spend transportation dollars wisely, our elected officials must rethink their transportation policies and priorities with a better understanding of future driving and transportation trends. We will all need to understand the changes in how people want to get around if we are to adequately invest in transportation options for this century rather than the previous one.

Serena Unrein is the public interest advocate for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund.

To download “A New Way to Go: The Apps, Maps, and New Technologies that are Giving More Americans Freedom to Drive Less,’’ visit www.arizonapirgedfund.org

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