April 14, 2015

The smartphone: An essential travel guide

As Americans are increasingly using mobile technology to access online information on the go, they are turning to mobile devices to help them get from one place to another.

Young adults are especially likely to use their smartphone for navigationDespite the growing popularity of ride-hailing applications such as Uber and Lyft, the biggest transportation use of smartphones by far has to do with driving rather than sharing a ride. Fully 67% of smartphone owners use their phone at least occasionally to get turn-by-turn navigation while driving, with 31% doing so frequently, according to a recent Pew Research Center report on how Americans use their phones.

Indeed, 43% of smartphone owners say turn-by-turn navigation is the only transit-related function they use on their phone at least occasionally, according to new analysis of the data. Some 16% say they never use their mobile device for this purpose.

Turn-by-turn navigation is a popular feature among a wide range of smartphone owners, but younger adults are especially avid users. Some 80% of 18- to 29-year-old smartphone owners use their phone for real-time directions while at the wheel at least occasionally, and just 7% indicate that they never do so. Older adults are substantially less likely to use their phone for this purpose, but even so, more than one-third of smartphone owners ages 65 and older do so at least occasionally. College-educated and more-affluent smartphone owners are also especially likely to use their phones for navigation while driving. These groups are also more likely to own a smartphone.

Additionally, 25% of smartphone owners (and 38% of those ages 18-29) use their phone at least occasionally to find public transit information.

Accessing Public Transit Information by Phone Differs by Race/Ethnicity, Nativity and GeographySeveral groups stand out when it comes to using their phones for public transit information.

Minority and immigrant workers tend to rely more heavily on public transportation for commuting to their jobs than other groups do, according to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau data, and these groups are also relatively likely to navigate public transit using a mobile device. Some 37% of African-American and 30% of Hispanic smartphone owners use their phone to get public transit information at least occasionally, compared with 21% of whites. Foreign-born smartphone owners are also more likely to access public transportation on the go than those born in the U.S. (34% vs. 24%).

In addition, 41% of smartphone owners from the Northeast (home to several of the most traveled transit systems in the country) use their phone at least occasionally to look up public transit information, a substantially higher share than in other regions of the country. This activity is also more popular among smartphone owners who live in an urban area than among those who live in the suburbs or a rural area.

Compared with public transit and real-time navigation, the use of smartphones to hail a taxi or car service is a relatively niche behavior. Some 11% of smartphone owners use their phone for this purpose at least on occasion, but 72% of smartphone owners have never done so. This activity is particularly common among young adults, those who have attended college and those with relatively high household incomes.

Substantial Overlap Between Smartphone Owners Who Use Mobile for Public Transit and Taxi/Ride-hailingDespite the slightly different demographic characteristics of mobile public transit users and mobile car-hailers, there is a substantial amount of overlap between these two groups, our new analysis shows. Fully 69% of those who use their phone to book a taxi or car service at least occasionally say that they also use their phone regularly for public transit information. Similarly, 30% of mobile public transit users indicate that they use their phone for ride-hailing at least on occasion.

And regardless of which mode (or modes) of transportation they navigate using their smartphone, those who use their phone to help them get from place to place are more likely to say that they couldn’t imagine living without it.

This difference is especially pronounced for those who use their phones while driving: 52% of those who use their phone at least occasionally for turn-by-turn driving directions describe their phone as “something they can’t live without,” compared with just 34% of those who rarely or never use their phone to navigate on the road. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, considering that getting directions or finding a way to get somewhere is the top problem smartphone owners say they encounter when they find themselves without their phone.

Topics: Technology Adoption, Internet Activities, Mobile

  1. Photo of Monica Anderson

    is a research associate focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Aaron Smith

    is an associate director for research at Pew Research Center.


  1. David2 years ago

    I tend to do the bulk of my travel research on my laptop or tablet first. From restaurants, points of interest, etc. I also determine prior to leaving my home if I should use public transportation, cabs/Uber or my own car.

    I use my smart phone only as a follow up to my initial research.

  2. Paige Smith2 years ago

    It is interesting to learn that your smart phone is your essential travel guide. Using a smartphone effectively helps you navigate, plan, rent etc… I would be lost with out my Iphone.

  3. CatB2 years ago

    Could not tell if the evaluation of smartphone use for public transit surveyed *only* those who regularly use public transit in the first place. This would be important, since ridership in general is probably higher in the Northeast already. Thus, given the patterns of transit availability, especially fixed-rail types (which predominate in the Northeast), it doesn’t prove anything to say that more people in the Northeast use their smartphone for public transit info, unless its as a percent of ridership (or some other per-capita sort of metric). Otherwise, it’s like being surprised when a survey found more people wearing winter coats in the Northeast in January as compared to those in Hawaii and Florida…. No great surprise there!

    1. Aaron Smith2 years ago

      Hi CatB, thanks for the question. Each of these survey questions was asked of all smartphone owners, not just those who drive/take transit–we were interested in getting a broad read on how many Americans use their phones to help them get around, and to see how different modes of travel might stack up. As we noted, the Northeast is home to several of the most-traveled transit systems in the country, so that’s surely a big reason why those regional differences might exist. At the same time, just because transit exists doesn’t mean that people will necessarily use their phones to navigate it, so we think it’s still an interesting finding (even if it’s not especially surprising).


  4. Sergio Muñoz Bata2 years ago

    What about cost when traveling abroad? Is there a cheap way to do it? are there other options besides the roaming cost?

  5. praecisio2 years ago

    So…where’s the GUIDE?