You don't need a scientific study to tell you that public transit riders spend most of their commute glued to their phones. It's a ubiquitous site on any train, subway or bus: hordes of travelers silently hunched over glowing screens.
But a new study from DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development found that the promise of constant connectivity may actually be encouraging more people to take public transit. The researchers looked at technology use on commuter trains in the Chicago area and found a correlation between the increased use of tech on trains over the last five years and a significant boost in ridership.
In 2014, for example, after Chicago's Metra began installing WiFi, the number of annual passenger trips saw a 1.3 percent increase, even as fares increased by 25 percent. The study used data collected from 4,700 passengers on 53 commuter trains in the Chicago area in early 2015. Overall, researchers found that 56.2 percent of Chicago rail riders used tech while traveling, a three-fold increase from 2010.
The researchers didn't actually ask riders whether technology was the draw to the train, but they concluded that digital amenities are a major selling point for commuters who chose to take the train rather than driving. They suggest other transit agencies looking to increase ridership add WiFi and power outlets to stations and trains, as well as airport-style waiting areas where people can easily sit down and plug-in.
Other cities have already begun taking the cue.
In New York, the city has slowly undertaken making its sprawling subway system connected to the outside world, partnering with Transit Wireless and major cell service providers to make cell signals and WiFi accessible underground. More than 100 subway stations are now WiFi-connected. The $200 million project is slated to be finished by 2018.
Parts of BART in the Bay area, and public transit lines in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia are also connected.
“Sophisticated personal electronic devices are changing the way Americans use public transportation,” Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute, told the Mobility Lab. “Heavy users of mobile technology are finding train travel to be particularly amenable to their digitally oriented lives. Many relish the idea of using their devices from origin to destination, giving this historic mode of travel a new competitive edge.”
Regardless of the merits of the study, this makes perfect sense. As more and more of our world takes place inside the screens in our pockets, the idea of being disconnected becomes harder to bear—even if it's just on the commute to work.
But transit's techie boost may not be long-lived. In the future, we probably won't be driving our cars ourselves. The cars will do it for us, leaving us to tap furiously away on our screens.