Utah officials foresee that in the not-distant future, improved smartphone tools will ease the use of transportation options that might just kill off the need for personal cars — or at least help most families reduce from two cars to one.
That’s because smartphone apps are increasingly making it easier to plan and use everything from mass transit to ride-hailing, e-scooters, taxis and bicycles in the same trip. Unified apps may allow paying and booking at the same time for multiple options — or allow a monthly subscription for perhaps even unlimited use of all of them.
With such services, “Yes, we think a household in our community could go from two cars to one,” said Jaron Robertson, innovative solutions director for the Utah Transit Authority. “Maybe in other communities, such as New York City or Washington, D.C., I think there’s a possibility that a system like this could allow some to go to a no-car household.”
He made those comments Thursday during a workshop titled, “Can an app kill the personal car?” at the Move Utah Summit at the Little America Hotel.
Robertson noted that already an app in Finland has integrated mass transit, bicycles and taxicabs.
“It’s much like a cable TV package. You can pick a level of service,” he said. “You can say I want X amount of service on public transit, X amount of service with the taxicab — and then also access bike share.”
Jeremy Neigher, Rocky Mountain general manager for the ride-hailing company Lyft, said his firm is testing something similar in some U.S. cities.
Its new app allows ordering a personal ride or a shared one with others to a destination. “You can also take a Lyft bike or scooter. Also, you can rent a car” through the app, he said. It shows nearby transit and how to connect to it.
“This is a way that we think Lyft is part of a solution," he said. "It is not the solution” by itself.
He added some similar apps to coordinate different types of transportation are being used or tested in some American cities, including one called Passport.
Officials said there is plenty of financial incentive for people to avoid owning a car.
“Car ownership is very expensive. It costs about $10,000 a year to own an automobile,” Robertson said. “And it sits unused 95% of the time. It’s the second-largest household expense.”
He added that the average Utah household has two cars. Shedding one would create “such a great impact to the household when you start saying, ‘I have $10,000 more per year to spend.’ How do you utilize that to improve the quality of life? This is really powerful.”
Julianne Sabula, director of the strategic planning and programming group at the Salt Lake City Transportation Division, said with such costs, many are “not seeing cars as assets, but burdens…. What people want is a lifestyle. I think cars were long associated with a lifestyle, and now that has shifted a little bit.”
Neigher said fewer cars could also literally change the landscape.
He said cities now often are built “around the car, they’re not built around people. So we have 33,000 parking spots in Salt Lake City. Could that land be repurposed for something else — schools, parks?”
Officials see several obstacles that would need to be overcome before app-driven options replace cars on a large scale.
“Convenience is somewhat of a barrier,” said Marc Mortensen, support services director for St. George. He said personal cars are now the quickest, most convenient method to get places. “When that becomes inconvenient” because of such things as congestion or cost, “then mobility as a service becomes a better choice. Right now, it’s probably not, in all honesty.”
Robertson said buses and trains would be a backbone to services that could replace cars, and they must become more frequent and have more night and weekend service — which is expensive.
Sabula and Neigher also said that, in Utah, many people want cars for recreation such as camping — or regular trips for groceries and doctor appointments. Convincing them that owning a car for that is unnecessary could be difficult and take time.
But Neigher said younger generations — and Utah has the nation’s youngest population — seem to understand that and are more willing to use alternatives.
“The rate of 16-year-olds getting driver licenses has dropped about in half in the last 35 years,” Neigher said. That generation “doesn’t see car ownership as something it needs.”