Transit’s Simple Advantage? You Can Use Smartphones

Commuters along Metra's Union Pacific northwest train line spend the majority of their journey glued to thier smartphones and tablets. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)

With public-transit use riding a 58-year high of 10.8 billion trips last year, it only makes sense to ask: why?

One theory – now supported by new evidence – is that our smartphones and other mobile devices are encouraging people to choose transit instead of drive. These devices are not only changing the way we work, communicate, and socialize, but are influencing our mobility choices as well.

And a new study by DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development finds that the most avid users of mobile devices may be boosting Chicago’s transit ridership numbers.

The past five years have seen smartphones become nearly ubiquitous. There is evidence that the digital divide (the gap between those who have devices and those who do not) is shrinking, which makes smartphones and other internet-connected devices available to almost everyone. It’s not surprising then that people are essentially beginning to shape their lives around their devices, including how they commute to work.

Public transit has an inherent advantage over other modes when it comes to staying connected. Reading emails, shopping online, and using social media are illegal and dangerous when driving alone, but these activities are tailor-made for transit. The Chaddick Institute study found that 56.2 percent of Chicago commuter rail riders were engaged with technology while traveling in 2015. This is three times higher than observed five years ago, and there is reason to believe these rates will continue to increase. Clearly, mobile devices are becoming a part of modern public-transit ridership, a symbiotic relationship.

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“Sophisticated personal electronic devices are changing the way Americans use public transportation,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute. “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.”

The Chaddick Institute study collected data from 4,700 passengers on 53 commuter trains in the Chicago area in early 2015. It found that more than 44 percent of Metra riders used phones, tablets, laptops, or text while commuting, up from about 14 percent in 2010.

The report shows a correlation between digital amenities and transit ridership, showing that technology features such as Wi-Fi access boosted ridership (in 2014, Metra ridership was up 1.3 percent, to 83 million passenger trips, over the previous year) even in the face of Metra’s 25 percent fare increase in 2012.

According to a recent major report from the American Public Transportation Association, Chicago was just one of many public-transit agencies showing record ridership numbers for 2014. Interpreted broadly, the Chaddick Institute study suggests that mobile technology is at least partially responsible for this increase.

Limiting tech activity by having to drive alone is an issue that transit operators have a major opportunity to benefit from. By creating smart messages and advertising – and building strong technology infrastructure and amenities on transit – public agencies have much to gain by providing tech-friendly amenities that bring greater happiness to their riders. The amenities prescribed by the Chaddick Institute to other U.S. transit agencies include:

  • Wi-Fi service (in stations and on trains)
  • Power outlets (in stations and on trains), and
  • Airport-style waiting room environments.

Public transit faces more competition than ever, not just from driving (which remains, stubbornly, America’s favorite way to commute) but from new and popular mobility options like bikeshare and Uber.

In order to remain competitive, and particularly to attract drivers over to transit, agencies across the U.S. should consider adding services and amenities that appeal to their technology-dependent customers.

Photo and graphic courtesy of DePaul University

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Keith

You failed to mention cell phone service in subways. I struggle to think that transit agencies should be spending valuable resources on wifi when most people have unlimited, or at least very cheap, data service. Perhaps cities with lots of international visitors should still consider wifi, but my biggest annoyance is not having a 4G connection when I’m on an underground train.

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