Here's a question that we've heard a lot at High Gear Media: what does it take to get people to ditch their cars and take alternate transportation? Soaring gas prices make people travel less but don't really change their travel methods. Having an abundance of mass transit options doesn't have much effect, either. Even with a shaky economy and high unemployment, Americans drove a near-record number of miles in 2010.

So what can change the public's mind about taking the bus, subway, bike, and walking? A new study from Latitude Research reveals a four-letter answer: apps

MAJOR TAKEAWAYS

Latitude's study involved regular drivers between the ages of 24 and 51 in Boston and San Francisco who agreed to give up their cars for a week. Here's what researchers found (and we quote):

  • Autonomy matters more than ownership, and it’s enabled by tech. When it comes to transportation, users want an experience that offers them freedom. More than two-thirds of participants cited convenience, flexibility and control as the chief advantages of car usage—not comfort, status, or any other benefit inherent in vehicles themselves....
  • If you ditch your car (at least some of the time), you gain a community. Twice as many participants felt more integrated into their communities as a result of going car-free than had expected to. “This week I’ve really enjoyed walking along Market Street and discovering what a fantastic city I live in,” explains Mark V., a study participant from San Francisco. “I always knew it was a great place to live, but being forced to rely on public transportation only reinforced this.” In many cases, shared offline experiences such as riding the same bus or walking the same route every day prompted positive personal discoveries of new places and people as well as unexpected emotional connections. “When I got into my car for the first time after the week was over, I actually felt very claustrophobic and kind of lonely,” recalls Kristina K., a study participant from Boston....
  • A combination of “me + we” benefits are driving use of car-free transit options. Amongst participants, the top three motivators for going car-free were that it’s “better for the environment,” “money-saving” and “healthier.” New technologies have allowed people to explore different aspects of their personalities and values, and to achieve multiple goals (like reducing their carbon footprint and saving money) simultaneously.

That last point is perhaps the most important: unlike the Jeremy Clarksons of the world who seem convinced that mass transit is a socialist conspiracy, this study's participants were predisposed to believe that taking public transportation was better for their health, their wallets, and the environment. The major obstacle standing between them and mass transit was inconvenience -- inconvenience that could, in this day and age, be overcome through smartphone apps.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR APP-MAKERS

In the end, researchers determined that alternate transportation presents a crisis and opportunity for software developers. The trick to making useful transit apps is to create ones that:

  • Make taking alternate transportation easy (e.g. by pointing out nearby bus stops and estimating times of arrival);
  • Offer choices in transportation (e.g. by showing a range of transit options -- from Zipcars to rental bikes -- and the projected costs of each, given the user's destination);
  • Layer on information about other opportunities in the area (e.g. by showing street fairs or other attractions at a particular destination or en route to it).

We've already seen the beginnings of such apps -- just think of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's Parker app or Britain's Catch That Bus. Both use regularly updated databases to feed useful information to travelers. A developer who's able to merge that data into one handy app -- with maybe some Foursquare and Yelp features thrown in for good measure -- stands to make a tidy profit.

CAVEATS

We'd be remiss, however, if we didn't mention a couple of problems with Latitude's study. For starters, it only involved 18 participants, which is not a huge sample in scientific terms, and it's likely not representative as a whole. Second, the study lasted only one week, so the novelty of living a car-free life and "rediscovering their hometown" may have influenced the participants' reaction to the study; after a few more car-less weeks, participants might have missed their vehicles much more. Third, Boston and San Francisco have solid mass transit systems; cities with less efficient and varied public transportation could've easily yielded different results.

With luck, however, the study has given Latitude and others cause to continue poking and prodding at the problem of transportation in this increasingly crowded world. When and if they find a solution, we'll let you know.

[LATD]