Friday, August 16, 2013

Can the Way We Communicate Affect Our Physical Environment?

All of us in communications see every day how the digital world has reshaped our jobs and our personal lives. But I think the impact of texts, tweets and email may be going far beyond how we communicate with each other and could actually be shifting our preferences for the physical environment around us. The best example may be transportation and the way we commute.

This spring, public transit use reached the second highest level in the United States since 1957. The group that issued the report pointed to higher gas prices and an improved job market as the main reasons why more Americans are boarding subways, buses and trolleys.

Researchers and public transportation advocates often point to the seemingly endless expenses associated with car ownership – monthly payments, insurance, gas, repairs, parking – as a reason why many turn to public transit, particularly young adults. They also suggest that public transit users are concerned about the effect of cars on the environment. Pardon the pun, but I think there could be another, overlooked driver behind our shift to mass transit: our desire to stay connected.

You drive, I’ll text
These days, we all want to take advantage of every opportunity to communicate, but it’s not easy to like something on Facebook on your mobile device while you’re driving, and it certainly isn’t safe. And not surprisingly, it’s illegal to text while driving in most states. Even using a speech-to-text function on a hands-free device reduces your concentration on the road.

So, if we want to stay connected while we’re commuting, we shouldn’t be behind the wheel. Perhaps Greyhound’s old tagline, “Go Greyhound – and leave the driving to us,” which traces its roots to a 1956 ad campaign, may have been decades ahead of its time. (Public transit marketers and communicators, take note.)

The Millennial generation particularly is attracted to public transit. As a specialist in generational behavior commented about commuting, Millennials “want to spend as little time as possible doing it unless they can simultaneously do things they value, like texting, exercising or socializing.”

An anecdote or something more?
If the way we communicate today affects our commuting preferences, is it merely an interesting anecdote, something public transit insiders or generational scholars debate at happy hour? I think it could have broader, real-world ramifications. Email, texting and social media are often blamed for making our interactions feel less personal these days, but in fact, they may be literally bringing us closer together.

Successful public transit requires people to live closer together to provide a critical mass of users. They won’t be thrown into direct contact with neighbors just on buses or trains, they’ll also be living in more walkable communities built around mass-transit stops. Leaving our cars at home to focus on our mobile devices may be one of the factors causing demand for these types of neighborhoods—the norm in pre-WWII America—that can provide more opportunities for face-to-face interaction with our neighbors.

Of course, we’ll need to look up from our smart phones while we walk.

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