Driving is ingrained in the American culture. It is a rite of passage immortalized in movies and music as the moment when teens get their first taste of freedom – a set of car keys. But for most adolescents in Connecticut, driving is not an option, and there are few alternative means of transportation. Researchers from UConn’s Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center (CTSRC), located within the Connecticut Transportation Institute, have taken the first steps to understanding the transportation barriers, habits, and needs of teenagers in the Nutmeg State. Their findings were recently published in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives.
Though teenagers comprise about one-quarter of Connecticut’s population, only about 2% are licensed drivers. Despite that, the researchers found that travel in a family car – whether driven by a family member or by themselves – is the most common mode of transportation for Connecticut teenagers, with 71 percent identifying that as their principle means of getting around. About 14 percent rely mostly on public transportation, with adolescents in rural areas in particular reporting that options like public transit or even walking were less accessible.
CTSRC researcher Marisa Auguste says she spearheaded the project after encountering a similar study done in the greater Toronto area.
“When teens are unable to travel by personal vehicle, either because of age or financial restrictions, how are they getting around?” Auguste says. “In some instances, teens can become gainfully employed before they are eligible to drive. How are they accessing their employers or new employment opportunities outside of their immediate areas? Ridesharing transportation such as Uber or Lyft is restricted to those over the age of 18, eliminating this as a travel option for teens. If they reside in a rural area, which may involve greater traveling times due to distance and limited public transportation options, what travel options do non-driving teens have?”
Auguste says that oftentimes in studies, teens are grouped with other age groups who have different transportation needs, and are therefore an under-studied population.
“Much of traffic safety education centered on youth focuses on teaching young children how to cross the street safely and use crosswalk signals, but there is often no further educational messaging until they start to learn about driving cars. Currently, there is very little outreach or consideration of how teens who can’t or don’t drive are traveling, and if they can do so safely in their environment. I don’t think many people are asking these questions and we need to know the answers, so I decided to find out,” says Auguste.
Auguste and co-lead investigator CTSRC researcher Andrew Tucker designed the survey and distributed it to students at UConn and Manchester Community College who grew up in Connecticut to explore what transportation needs were like for adolescents. The survey dug into attitudes, habits, demographics, and details about neighborhoods where the teens lived.
“What I discovered was that teens don’t have enough access to public transportation, they can’t all comfortably walk and bike in their neighborhoods, and they desire access to other areas of the state,” says Auguste. “When available, they are using personal cars, however, it differs between geographic areas and may be the result of the absence of alternative options. When asked whether public transportation access was within walking distance of their teenage homes, about 75% of respondents in urban areas (populations over 50,000) answered ‘yes,’ compared to only 8% who said ‘yes’ in rural areas (population under 15,000). When asked about the presence of continuous sidewalks in their neighborhoods, the figures were similar, with 84% of rural residents answering ‘no,’ compared to only 31% of urban residents. Questions about the frequency of walking or biking in their neighborhoods revealed about 50% of respondents from rural areas said they never saw this type of non-motorist travel in their area.”
Broadening the understanding of transportation barriers and needs of different demographics within the state is necessary for planning purposes. Auguste argues that knowing these needs will serve everyone, not just teens. Increased mobility and access to places to shop, seek entertainment, and employment benefits people of all ages.
Planning is also needed for improving safety, and Auguste notes that Connecticut ranks high in national statistics for fatal and pedestrian-involved car crashes, with adolescents and young adults aged 13 to 25 accounting for nearly a quarter of all pedestrians or cyclists injured or killed in car crashes from 2015 to 2018.
“Connecticut has a big issue with fatal crashes involving pedestrians,” says Auguste. “Our pedestrian fatality rate in 2018, when the study was conducted, was higher than over 50% of other states and the highest in New England.”
One explanation for this is walkability, something survey respondents repeatedly noted as an issue, since sidewalks and lighting are limited and narrow roads where drivers frequently drive at high speeds are a safety concern.
“Concerns over safety and neighborhood walkability came up a number of times. Respondents said they didn’t feel safe traveling on foot as teens because of those things. However, some of these concerns are already being addressed at the state level by organizations like the Connecticut Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, who are working on increasing connectivity and introducing safe pathways for non-motorists. With this study, we wanted to add an additional perspective to the conversation that otherwise may not have been considered.”
Noting that Connecticut is not a big state, Auguste says there is plenty of room for creative solutions, and she is hopeful the study will provide inspiration. For example, Connecticut could adapt a successful program from neighboring Rhode Island, where autonomous shuttles were used as an option to help improve mobility.
“The opportunity to develop pilot studies with self-driving technology and teens definitely exists. It may benefit us to first determine what kind of traction we get in terms of ridership. Would this transportation option even be utilized? I believe there is great promise in something like that, as we will likely find that teens may be more accepting of this new technology. Getting their initial buy-in on these projects could help accelerate broader social acceptance. I think something like that could work here.”
Though when it was listed as an option, driving was the preferred method of transport for most survey respondents, Auguste says that if alternative means of travel were readily available this may not be the case.
“We heard a lot of ‘Neighborhood walkability is an issue and we need more sidewalks and bike paths. It is nice to have a car but for those who don’t, we can’t really travel freely in the state and we’d like the option to go to other businesses or to have job opportunities beyond our small towns.’”
To learn more about Auguste’s work and other aspects of transportation psychology, follow her blog Drivers Behaving Badly.