Is the iPhone why Gen Y love public transport?

Most commonly used iPhone passwords

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 (H/T Human Transit).

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 between 18 and 25 years 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 years, 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” like 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 like 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.


16 Comments on “Is the iPhone why Gen Y love public transport?”

  1. Oz says:

    For what ever the observation is worth, one tram this evening on Lygon Street had 8 out of 10 using electronic screen devices for part of their journey. There were close to 100 in my viewing range.

  2. Cat says:

    When I got rid of my car I knew I had to get an iphone so I wouldn’t be bored on public transport. So maybe this argument can work the other way around too!

  3. A couple of points:

    “You can’t send text messages easily on an iPhone… when you’re hanging from a strap.” Rubbish! One handed text messaging is not difficult, especially on an iPhone. Anecdotal evidence I know, but a quick survey of two of my Gen-Y co-workers and we’re in consensus. When it comes to very crowded trains I’ve actually always found it easier to use an iPhone or equivalent than to read a book, simply because it takes less space and I don’t have to try and turn the pages with my spare hand.

    You’ve sort of contradicted yourself on another point. On one hand you’ve pointed to the fact that Gen-Y tend to live and work in the inner suburbs and inner city. On another hand you’ve stated that car trips are generally quicker than public transport. However when commuting in and around the inner suburbs, this generally isn’t the case. Therefore, for this portion of Gen Y, not only will there be more productive time at home, but also some semi-productive time whilst on transport.

    “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!).” I’ll counter your two assumptions here with my own: privacy on phone calls might matter to some, but given some of the details I would have rather not overheard, it doesn’t matter to all! I’d also bet that it’s quite a low portion of the population that has hands free for their mobiles, and likely an even lower number of Generation Y (who are less likely to buy new cars with features like built in Bluetooth).

    These minor quibbles aside, I agree that there is no one major reason for the higher portion of Gen Y’s using transport, nor a sole reason for the increase in passenger numbers more generally.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Julian, I don’t doubt it’s possible (using your thumb, I presume?), but the proposition is that in general it’s harder to use a keyboard, virtual or real, when standing on a moving vehicle. Look around in peak hour and I reckon you’ll see more sitters actively using electronics than standers.

      Likewise with telephone privacy. Some don’t seem to care but I reckon most do. It’s a limitation.

      A higher % of the Gen Y cohort is living in the inner city where its harder to drive than was the case for this age group in previous generations. But by no means all. Remember that less than 10% of the entire population of a city like Melbourne lives in the inner city.

      • heritagepoliceman says:

        I agree with julian, sooooo many people watching texting talking listening to music on their elec thingys on the tram, amaxing what they can do with one hand ! mostly gen X ers.

        more importantly, also have friends who have cars, and live in inner city, but can use PT more effectively because can access real time arrivals or timetables with iphone apps, so avoid waiting, something that when I was gen x-er in the early 80s I did a lot of – except for the last train home, which I knew was about 20.10 am. but even so, such new bahavious not likely to be a huge driver of pt use, but probably accounts for a percentage of the rise. but basically if your going to the CBD at any time (and certainly there must be a significant rise pt to the city in evenings and weekends, city bars soooo popular these days) makes it easier. not to mention no parking / pay a lot for parking.

  4. T says:

    I’d just like to point out that the article centers around the system in Perth, which I can tell you as someone who recently moved from Melbourne to Perth, is far better than the system in Melbourne (Melbourne, hang your head in shame…). The arguments that peak hour is too crowded or that driving is faster actually don’t apply in Perth – the opposite tends to be true. My current 45 minute train + bus ride commute takes me 1.5 hours driving in traffic. That’s 100% time savings! The frequency is not an issue either, meaning wait times are not adding to my PT commute. Plus, I have found the commute on the train to be quite comfortable: the trains are not overcrowded the way they are in Melbourne (and they’re cleaner too, the seats are nicer, there are no strange unidentified smells…). Sure, by the time the train gets a couple of stations away from the CBD there are no empty seats left, and people are standing, but I have yet to witness the level of crowding that I have seen in Melbourne. For most of my journey, there are plenty of empty seats (which is more than you could ever say in Melbourne). Plus those who get on the train quite close to the CBD (when there are no empty seats) do not have a long enough commute to really be concerned with the need to pass the time. Finally, I have not had any reliability issues so far… again more than you can say for Melbourne (I don’t think someone could take the train every day in Melbourne for one month and not have a train delayed at some point… often by 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes even more). The only thing I can say in defence of Melbourne’s system is that it’s cheaper. But only marginally.

    I can certainly see why, in Perth, the advent of technology, coupled with a decent public transport system, Gen Y would not take to using a car in a hurry unless it was necessary. I used to drive in Melbourne but have taken to the trains here and personally find the journey far more enjoyable than driving. I have my iPad and my portable wi-fi device and I can read a book, the newspaper, surf facebook, tweet, text, chat, skype, or even watch an episode of my favorite TV show! And my trip is half as long! I don’t understand why anyone would drive in those circumstances.

    This is really what Melbourne should be aiming for.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Perth is the nudge, but the article is about urban public transport in Australia’s major cities, which in effect means it’s mostly about Melbourne and Sydney.

    • suze says:

      I just want to rebut that and point out that when I lived in Perth, the bus/train trip for me to get into work at RPH would have taken me 75mins whereas driving was 45mins on a bad day. Transperth thought it was more efficient to force me to change to a train when a direct bus into the city would have been far faster and more pleasant.

      I have been back several times since I moved to Melbourne and despite some people’s complaints, I don’t find the traffic has worsened significantly in Perth. If I moved back to Perth, unless I was less than 100m from a train line, I’d still choose to drive for the convenience of it.

      That said, I am appalled that WA can build 100km of rail line and two underground stations in the time the Vic govt buys two trains and opens a station at Craigieburn. Whoopee! Stop commissioning reports Ted and build something!

      • T says:

        I agree that it probably very much depends on where you live and where your destination is as to whether driving or the train will be more convenient for you. In my case, I am 5 minutes from a train station and it’s one straight line to my destination, with one bus (2 stops) to save me a ten minute walk (yes I’m lazy like that). Putting the whole not living near a train station issue aside, the trains here are way better run than the ones in Melbourne, hands down!

  5. BG says:

    Apps like TramTracker and the Metlink journey planner also make public transport an easier option than it was a few years ago. These particularly help with the once mysterious — but actually quite good — bus network in Melbourne. As someone in the nominated Y generation, I would put these apps forward as really pushing myself and others I know toward increased public transport use.

  6. Richard P says:

    The arbitrary nature of fines and penalties directed at probationary drivers has led me to spend more time on trains and buses. The populist punishments imposed on those with P-plates means that even a small wrong (like not displaying P-plates) is equal to arguably more dangerous wrongs such as driving up to 25km/h over the limit. In Melbourne at least, one is less likely to be on the receiving end of such arbitrary fines on public transport (so long as the right ticket is bought), although it has been known for trams to receive speeding fines…

  7. yewenyi says:

    I certainly find that I use my smart phone much more when I am on the bus, rather than on my tricycle. I ride to work these days and do miss the ability to sit back and relax and communicate. In a way smart phones are a good way to fill in the little gaps in time. But I’m not sure that they are the reason for a transport choice, they would be a factor and certainly much better to use than a laptop.

  8. suze says:

    I used to spend my entire commute with my phone in my hand, but I suspect it puts strain on an old neck injury (this is worse if I’m forced to stand). I used the time to catch up with Twitter and Facebook, since things tend to happen while you sleep.

    At the moment I’m listening to audiobooks instead. This keeps me entertained during the journey, but I do miss having something to look when I’m squashed up next to the masses.


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