Transit’s Surprising Advantage is Sitting Right in Your Pocket

Metra Commuters
Metra commuters. (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? Technology may be partially responsible for public transit’s record ridership, but probably not in the way you think.

As smartphones and other electronic devices have skyrocketed in popularity, more people are becoming dependent on them (much to the chagrin of some psychologists). These technology-dependent commuters want to to remain engaged with their devices at all times, and more of them are choosing public transit for the ease at which they can do so while riding the bus or train.

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, and there is reason to believe this trend is occurring in other metropolitan areas. Apple, Google, and Amazon aren’t just changing the way we work, communicate, and socialize, but are also influencing our transportation choices as well.

The past five years have seen smartphones become nearly ubiquitous. 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.

Chart showing increase in commuter rail passengers engaged with technology

“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 bike-sharing services 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-enamored customers.

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