Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

What WiFi means to modern public transit commuters

October 21, 2011 - 11:40 AM
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Deep in the shallows. (Photo: flickr/daquella manera)

A new study confirms what would seem increasingly like conventional wisdom — commuters do like WiFi and are more inclined to take public transportation if it's available, according to researchers at DePaul University in Chicago. The paper in question was completed earlier this fall and is just now being released to the public. Fitting enough, I suppose, in light of recent news that Amtrak is adding WiFi to its regional trains (but apparently with noxious content-filtering, as Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert notes).

Any glance at our public transit in D.C., whether on the Metro trains or on the public buses, reveals that people have come to rely on technology in much bigger ways than ever before. I see smartphones, Kindles, iPads, Metro riders with laptops spread out over their knees (without wireless but still typing away), and of course iPods, among other devices. In a survey of more than 1,000 bus riders from around the country, these Chicago researchers discovered that sure enough, what we've been seeing on the Metro and on the buses is real. More than 90% of commuters said they plan to use portable electronic devices en route to their destinations. What did they want these devices for?

Cell phone calls, texting, music, and surfing the net. See the chart after the jump to see how important commuters found these different activities:

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: DePaul University)

The value likely increases as commuters get younger, I suspect, although the research doesn't address age as it relates to technological expertise (the research does note that nearly half of all curbside bus passengers fall into the 18-25 age range, however). In any case, these people want and need their wireless and other little distractions to help forget they're surrounded, in intensely close proximity, to countless strangers.

Commuters in the East also seem to place a higher premium on always being plugged in:

An almost identical share of passengers, 91.3% in the East and 91.3% in the Midwest, plan to use a portable electronic device on their trip—a rate that is appreciably higher than on conventional bus lines such as Greyhound (84.9%). Nearly half of curbside passengers anticipate surfing the internet (49%) or sending emails (49%) during the journey. Generally, customers in the East place greater emphasis on the importance of surfing the internet and on other digital tasks; 52.1% of passengers surveyed in this region considered the availability of wireless internet an important factor when making their travel decision, compared to 43.1% in the Midwest.

So why hasn't Washington, D.C. integrated wireless into the WMATA subway and bus systems? Yesterday in the Old Council Chambers, I guarantee I was grateful for such reliable, good WiFi. Basic cell-phone service was considered a victory two years ago for Metro ... and even now, it's hardly a reliable presence. When City Paper asked about Metro WiFi eight months ago, that 2009 press release is what Metro held up.

WiFi will be a critical component to getting more people to take public transit over time, I suspect, although I'm not entirely bothered one way or another yet myself. The presence or lack of wireless isn't likely, in my mind, to be a primary driver of whether or not someone takes public transit within a city. Sure, the DePaul survey says that more than 45% of respondents rated WiFi as important. But who wouldn't? I'd likely mark the inclusion of WiFi as important and awesome if I were filling out a survey ... but it's still not critical to how I ride just yet unless it's a particularly long trip. My commutes are brief enough and busy enough that I don't need the Internet in front of my eyes every second. Perhaps we overestimate just how necessary that connection is. Yes, I'm happy that Metro begun to attempt expanding cell coverage in recent years, and I'd be happy about wireless. But those are still amenities in my mind, and WMATA has bigger issues on its plate — the hundreds of millions going into repairs, into shuttle buses when they're needed, into all the escalators that we still see broken all around us. The addition of WiFi should be on Metro's agenda for the next few years, though, if they want to stay up to speed. The agency wisely update their SmarTrip cards to allow riders to upload money online this year.

But it's one step among many that other transit agencies are taking. Moscow's subway system has plans to offer WiFi in the coming months, we learned in recent months, and Russia has begun experimenting with WiFi on buses. Nationally here, we've seen WiFi act as quite the draw on bigger bus lines, such as Megabus and Boltbus (however spotty the connections may be). What's the next step forward for us in D.C.?

Hat tip to the Atlantic Cities for pointing out the recent research.

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