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The Next Generation of Travel: Focus Groups

OVERVIEW

In the spring of 2012, seven focus groups were held in five locations around the country to better understand travel differences and preferences between youth (ages 18-26) and non-youth (ages 27 and older). Participants were asked to explain their reasons for making travel decisions, which included their current perceptions of car ownership, the effect of new communication technologies on their travel decisions, and their thoughts on emerging transportation policy issues.

The five focus group sites were located in the following cities: Richmond-VA, Boston-MA, Portland-OR, San Francisco-CA and Washington DC. Focus groups were held in areas that were car dependent and in areas with well-developed public transportation systems.

Focus group participants were carefully selected to ensure a demographic mix, with a selection emphasis related to the variables of interest to this study, including age, personal income, worker status, availability and use of public transportation in the community and vehicle ownership and/or availability.

As youth travel is the focus of this study, five of the seven focus groups consisted of only youth (ages 18-26). Two focus groups consisted of only non-youth (ages 27 and older), whose feedback was used in making baseline comparisons between the two age groups.  As there was consistency in responses among the non-youth participants, the study team opted to focus on the recruitment of youth to best meet the needs of the study.

Location was a factor in the selection of the recruitment of youth. A mix of urban and suburban participants were selected to identify similarities and differences in travel between participants who live in different neighborhoods. To understand attitudes toward driving, youth who used public transportation regularly were selected to be a part of the focus groups. Students who resided on campus were discouraged from participation, with the thought that campus-living may require different and/or isolated ways of traveling that would vary greatly from the travel of the general public.

Overall, location and finances played the greatest role in whether or not a person owned a vehicle. The effects of the economic recession on youth employment prospects, housing expenses and added student loan debt, made living in area that provided sound transit services and other inexpensive and convenient means of getting around very desirable. Participants who lived in more car dependent areas viewed their car as a necessity, as well as a symbol of freedom and convenience. Of the participants who did not own a car, most thought that they would eventually own a car in the future, when they envisioned themselves more settled in a career and/or with a family of their own. Other than financial reasons; car ownership was viewed by most participants in a positive light.

Environmental views overall did not have a significant effect on a person’s decision to own a car. Concerns about the effect of driving on the environment were voiced stronger in some locations more than others; for instance, in the Washington D.C. area, almost all participants thought that their future car purchases would be either a hybrid or electric vehicle, based on the knowledge that these vehicles were better for the environment. In other locations, either little was known about hybrid and/or electric vehicles, or reasons for purchasing these vehicles was more so related to getting better gas mileage rather than for the environmental benefits.

Wireless technologies were shown to be integrated into the lives of all the participants. Most used travel applications via their phones on a daily basis, and viewed them as significantly improving their travel experience through saved time and added convenience. Most did not see social media tools and online communication platforms as replacing their in-person socializing with friends (who lived in the general vicinity). Most participants engaged in online shopping and banking, but were unsure about how this affected their travel. Most said that their purchase decisions were made for convenience-sake, rather than a conscious decision to reduce their travel. The feedback from the focus groups on online use as it related to travel, suggests further investigation is needed if conclusions are to be made on this topic.

Overall, the participants did not view teleworking as desirable, given the age group’s need for interaction with peers in the workforce and their desire to engage in activities outside of the home.

The information gathered from the focus group sessions in this study was intended to provide insights to complement information provided by the Next Generation of Travel statistical analysis and accompanying literature reviews. As we come to the close of this study, we have found that much of the feedback from focus groups mirrors conclusions drawn by the statistical analysis and accompanying literature reviews of the many variables that we have examined to affect travel, including income, car ownership, location and technology use.

SUMMARY OF VIEWPOINTS BY CITY

Richmond, VA—Nearly all participants in the Richmond focus group sessions owned a car. Owning a car was viewed as a necessity in the Richmond area, and a more convenient way of transport rather than taking public transportation, walking or biking. Most participants took Driver’s Education in high school, as it was offered to them at no cost, unlike other areas in the country, where Driver’s Education is no longer subsidized by the public education system.

Participants who did not own a car, had anticipated owning a car or having access to a car as soon as they had a driver’s license. Thinking about what they wanted in a car included that it be up-to-date in styling and features. Negativity expressed about car ownership was focused on the expense of owning a car, including repairs, maintenance and insurance.

Youth viewed the integration of communication technology into their daily lives as the norm. Although many felt that their use of travel applications helped to them to better plan their trips and save time, they did not feel that new technologies substantially affected their trip making; however, when discussed in more depth, the opportunity to shop online seemed to have reduced the number of car trips for many. Most of the participants did not see social media tools and online platforms as a replacement to in-person socializing with others; but rather as a way to keep connected with their friends and family on an immediate basis.

Many of the participants did not view the price of gas as having an effect on changing the way they traveled; however, a few mentioned being more efficient when running errands by planning their driving route to take care of multiple tasks in one geographic area. Concerns for how driving affects the environment were not expressed by most participants as a primary reason for changing their travel decisions. When asked about the use of travel options other than the car, many were not sure whether the availability of other modes would make a significant impact on their travel decision making, reflecting the regional attitudes of a very car-oriented culture.

Select comments from the Richmond focus group:

“You couldn’t not have a car, living in Richmond.”

“If I don’t have a car I’m not going to be able to get to work.”

“For everyone, your first car means one thing – freedom.”

“When I was 16, I used my mom’s car for a while. I kept saying I had to go to the store to buy toothpaste...I’d just say I had to go to the store and I’d drive around to see my friends.”

“A lot of kids today think they are due a car.”

“I have a friend whose son is getting his license and the mom and dad were going to pass down their mini-van. He said to them at his school people don’t drive that kind of car. They drive a Saab or BMW.”

“Technology makes me feel connected to the world. You know what’s going on at all times.”

Portland, OR—Location was a factor in the shaping of current perceptions of car ownership among Portland focus group participants. City dwellers did not feel that owning a car was a necessity given their access to public transit and places within walking distance, unlike suburban participants, who felt that owning/having access to a car was a necessity. Those who lived in the city felt that they could forgo the expense of owning a car, and instead use the money for other expenses, such as housing. Although the expense of owning a car was the biggest deterrent for not owning a car among this group, the most consistent view of car ownership was positive, as most participants equated car ownership with a sense a freedom and independence.

Youth viewed the use of wireless technologies as part of their daily lives. They did not think that social media technologies were a replacement for socializing in person with others; they instead thought of it as a way to keep them connected with others on a more immediate basis. Online purchases were often tied to convenience versus conscious decisions to drive less. Privacy issues related to these technologies were not a concern among this group, especially if the information obtained was used to improve their travel experience and/or reduce congestion, such as providing immediate traffic updates. Phone applications, including various transit apps and Google maps, were mentioned as potentially influencing routes taken by making traveling easier.

Portland participants had some familiarity with car sharing services, such as the Zip Car; however, no participants had a membership. Car sharing was appealing to some, but most preferred the convenience of owning their own car. One respondent felt that he would need to compare the convenience of a service like Zip Car versus using public transit.

Select comments from the Portland focus group:

“I’m saving up money for a car, but it hasn’t been a necessity. The buses here are really easy to use and quick, so I’m focused on other things at the moment.”

“I live a block away from the grocery store and a block away from the transit center, so I can get the bus and the MAX and I can drive when I need to.”

“Where I live you have to drive to get to a store. I’d rather be in a place where I could walk. It could be cheaper. It would save on gas.”

“I live in the suburbs now, but I would love to live downtown where I could have everything so conveniently right around me and I wouldn’t have to depend on my car.”

“If I could live and work downtown, I’d definitely do it.”

“With technology you are in more constant contact with people and at least for me, I’m more likely to go and see them.”

“All your information is out there and everyone has so much data about you. So, if the Department of Transportation wanted to do a study and use information in a beneficial way, I’d have no problem with it.”

Boston, MA—Much like responses from the Portland focus group, location played a prominent role in the shaping perceptions on car ownership. Those who lived in the city, where public transit was available, did not see the need for owning a car unlike their suburban counterparts. There was agreement, however, from most of the participants about the desire to have a car for weekend activities and/or for long distance travel. A few urban participants mentioned owning a car, but keeping it at a residence far outside the city (i.e. like at a parent’s house).

Much like responses from the other focus groups, expenses related to owning a car (which included cost for parking), and the hassle of driving in city traffic were the biggest deterrents for owning a car. A few participants were aware of the Bike Share programs in Boston, but had no specific information on how these programs worked.

The Boston group viewed selected wireless technologies and phone applications as a way to make life easier and save time. They did not see social media tools as a replacement to in-person socializing. They showed stronger concerns about their privacy, than youth in other cities, and felt that an individual should be allowed to opt out of programs that may compromise their privacy, such as equipment that may be used to track their mileage.

Select comments from the Boston focus group:

“Being in Boston for a couple of years, I realized a car wasn’t a necessity. I’ve grown accustomed to not having a car. Now with gas prices, I’m kind of happy. “

I prefer having a car but it's not feasible in the city.

I never drive in the city. It's just too inconvenient. I ride my bicycle.

“I don’t have my car here. I leave it in Maine at my parent’s house. It was more of a hassle to have a car here.”

“As my friends and I make more money, we go further and see more places. We’ll drive to New York or DC, but we won’t drive to the grocery store. I bike. It’s not worth driving in the city. It’s an aggravation.”

“As I got older, I have more things to pay for. I’m trying to take public transportation as much as I can, but the car is more of a comfort.”

“I’m a sophomore in college and within the past year, I’ve seen a lot of my friends sell their cars because they really didn’t have enough money to get by and it wasn’t absolutely vital for them...They could sell their cars for $3,000 and they could live off of that for a while.”

“I don’t want to live somewhere where I don’t have a parking spot.”

“I’m conflicted...I live in a building now where they have Zip Cars. I’m thinking, do I even need a car? because I take public transportation mostly”

“If you live in the city, a car is almost like a luxury, as opposed to being a requirement if you live in the suburbs.”

“Sometimes if we decide to go somewhere, I’ll look at my phone to see how long it takes to get there by walking or train.”

“The commuter rail I take home has Internet access, so it’s kind of a big plus for me when I’m deciding if I’m driving or taking the train back. I could sit on the train for 2 hours and get my work done.”

“I use the T app a lot just to see if I have time to get coffee before the train arrives.”

“I think that texting is a conduit for me to meet up with someone, not a replacement to see them. I don’t see it as a replacement to meeting up with people.”

“Gas prices have doubled, so I think twice, do I really need to go out? I never really thought about it when gas was $1.99.”

Washington, D.C. Area (Bethesda, MD)—Unlike the Richmond focus group, most participants in the Bethesda group did not own a car. Their primary reason for not owning a car was financial; many participants spoke of living expenses and re-paying student loans as greater priorities. In addition, owning a car was associated with parking expenses. Most participants in this group used public transit and/or walked on a daily basis. A few spoke of getting to and from work using a bicycle. Car sharing services were familiar to some, and a few had used the service; however, based on concerns about cost, quality and time restraint of using the car, most did not find the concept of interest.

Environmental concerns were expressed the strongest among the Bethesda group, as most participants thought that if they were to own a car in the future, it definitely would be eco-friendly and use less gas, such as a hybrid or electric car.

Bethesda participants, much like the other focus group participants, viewed the use of technology and social media as a means of connecting with others, not to replace face-to-face socializing. Most viewed wireless technologies, such as EZ Pass and Google Maps as offering convenience and time-saving benefits and gave little thought to privacy concerns.

Select comments from the Bethesda focus group:

“Right now, it’s between paying rent, having a phone and a car. You get to pick two. So, I need my phone for work and school and I would really live a place to live, so I’ve got to choose those two. It’s just not economical to have a car.”

“I had a car here for a couple of months and it was more of a hassle than it was worth. There’s no where to park and there is traffic everywhere...It was just too much money and too much hassle.”

“People our age are carrying significant amounts of student loan debt. When you look at your opportunity to buy a car, when you have several hundred dollars of debt each month because you have to repay your student loan... that really takes a car payment off the table.”

“I’m paying my undergraduate loan and now my graduate school loans...I don’t want the responsibility at the same time...It’s just one more thing to worry about. It’s a luxury, not a necessity.”

“Gas was probably cheaper than it is now and people aren’t getting jobs as quickly.”

“In a car, I’d have to be actively engaged in my commute, whereas now I can nap or read.”

“I feel like (commuting by public transit) adds an hour to my life. I love to read and if I can get in a half hour in both directions – that’s an hour I didn’t have before.”

“For me, it’s more about that I’ve chosen to live someplace where I can walk to a lot of the places I need. If I’m near there, I’ll go to the bank. If not, I’ll do it on-line. It’s whatever is most convenient for me at that moment in time.”

“The choice to me isn’t...am I going to go see someone or send them a Facebook message? If they live in the same city, I am going to see them.”

“I think the ship has sailed on that...Google knows what ads to show you. Facebook knows. Somehow everything gets tracked.”

San Francisco, CA—Similar to the Bethesda focus group, none of the participants in the San Francisco focus group owned a car. A car was viewed as an unnecessary expense, given the access they had to public transit/and or ability to walk to places of interest. Furthermore, as many of the participants in this group were unsettled in their careers and lifestyles, the uncertainty of where they may be living/working in the future, discouraged them from taking on the additional expense of owning of a car.

Car ownership perceptions were viewed as a sign of stability; something they may want when they get older and have a family. Among those who grew up in suburban areas the car was viewed as a symbol of freedom and independence, similar to participants in other focus groups. Other perceptions of car ownership were related to city living. This group felt that they, and many of their peers, were gravitating towards cities not only for the overall lifestyle and employment opportunities, but because they would not have the need for a car, thus avoid an additional expense.

Wireless technologies were integrated into their daily living, though this group had a difficult time defining how they thought it affected their travel, other than a source of convenient travel information. As expressed by participants in the other groups, social media tools and texting were not thought to replace in-person interaction, and shopping online was viewed as more of a matter of convenience rather than a conscious decision to reduce travel. Privacy concerns were minimal; however, participants expressed that if a government agency was collecting data about them, they would want to know how this data would be used and that it would be properly protected.

Select comments from the San Francisco group:

“I like the fact I can walk everywhere.”

“I like that its fast paced.”

“Buses run frequently, it’s environmentally friendly, they have a lot of routes and the technology is great.”

“The thing at the bus stops that tells you when the next bus is arriving has changed my life. That is amazing...I go there and it says the bus is in 15 minutes and I can get something to eat.”

“It (transit app) helps me find new routes.”

“When my friends and I go to a place we haven’t been, I’ll just punch in the app...and it cuts your wait time, too.”

“I think we are always willing to sacrifice these liberties (privacy) for convenience or other things...you have examples of these things failing, someone getting into accounts...These things happen once in a while but they don’t seem to shake our faith. We are always willing for some reason to use them, for progress.”

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