Have i-Phone, Will Travel

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Much in the way that fax machines, Fed Ex, and home computers changed residential living several decades ago, portable technology is now changing how we spend our time when moving from place to place. To better understand traveler behavior in the digital age, our DePaul University team has been tracking how passengers on intercity trips engage with technology. We’ve compiled data using (ironically) hand-held electronic devices on 112 air, bus and rail departures encompassing 18,000 passengers.

Technology usage rose sharply among travelers on all modes of transportation between late 2009 and the beginning of this year. The percentage of passengers using technology at randomly selected points rose to 43 percent on curbside buses and 36 percent on conventional Amtrak trains. Airlines and Greyhound buses also saw sharp increases in tech usage. And almost 90% of passengers today use a portable digital-communication device at some point during their trip. Travelers have increasingly switched from simple audio devices to complex “visual” devices with LCD screens that can’t be effectively used behind the wheel when driving.

The latest technology developments seem to favor common carriers. Drivers cannot text, tweet or catch up on Facebook when behind the wheel, unless of course, they are willing to put themselves and others at risk. This is a contrast from the earliest advances in portable electronic technology, which tended to favor automobile travel. Cellular phones were useful in cars, but their bulk and their weak batteries, along with the frequency of 'dead spots,' rendered them impractical on buses and trains, and in airports.

Although the first commercial cellular phone service was introduced on Metroliner trains in 1969, the widespread installation of pay phones (particularly the Airphone) on commercial flights did not occur until 1984, and even then they were seen as an expensive luxury.

As recently as the start of this century, traveling on a common carrier often meant going “incommunicado” for long periods of times. Business flyers who ventured “out of the loop” dashed for pay phones after arriving. Weary motorists fumbled for change at truck stops to place pay phone calls.

Megabus and Boltbus, both curbside operators, have been the most adept at riding the personal technology wave. These curbside operators offer a trifecta of amenities — free Wi-Fi, power outlets accessible from every seat, and continuously strong cellular signals (due to their use of interstate highways) — that no other major transportation mode has yet to provide. They generally serve a younger demographic, so it's not surprising that passengers on curbside buses are more likely to be engaged with technology than travelers on any other major mode. On curbside buses, it is common for more than 60% of passengers to be engaged with electronic technology at any given point.

A survey we administered to riders waiting at curbside boarding locations showed that almost half consider Wi-Fi important when they choose a travel mode, and about 55% plan to send texts or emails on their trip. The ability to freely use portable devices, while undoubtedly less important than the low fares, helps explain why so many affluent travelers now hop on curbside buses, even when travel times are longer. With more than 400 daily departures, this sector has grown by more than 25% annually over the past several years.

We also observed that many technology users on buses take advantage of adjacent empty seats. This opportunity is increasingly rare when flying. Our results shows that technology usage declines significantly on both airplanes and buses as conditions on board become more crowded.

Amtrak is also benefiting from the technology wave, offering generous seating and tray tables that are attractive to technology users. Nevertheless, there are far more dead spots on trains than on buses, and Amtrak has not fulfilled its goals of making Wi-Fi widely available, in part due to the technological challenges associated with simultaneously serving hundreds of travelers along freight-oriented corridors. Wi-Fi is provided on Acela high-speed trains, but on very few other routes. Moreover, most long-distance trains still lack readily-available power outlets in coach class, sometimes leaving travelers in the dark after only a few hours.

Even more perplexing is the absence of Wi-Fi and power outlets at most major rail stations, where installation is relatively cheap. Last summer, for example, I scrambled to find an outlet in San Diego—even searching the restrooms—to no avail, before reluctantly starting a long commuter train ride with a dead battery.

Airlines face entirely different challenges. Only 24 percent of flyers in coach cabins were engaged with technology at randomly selected points during our observations. Crowded conditions and prohibitions during takeoffs and landings—which can be in effect for almost half of a flight—discourage use. Nevertheless, use of technology grew sharply during 2010. Airlines have invested heavily in airport lounges, gate areas, outlets and interactive on-board systems that support portable devices and in-flight Wi-Fi. Inflight cell phone calls also could be a game-changer in the not-so-distant future.

It would be a stretch to argue that portable technology will appreciably diminish the share of travel by car anytime soon. Technology has accelerated the pace of life, making many people less tolerant of trains and buses operating on slow and unreliable schedules. As digitally connected lives in decentralized environments become more feasible, many people find it difficult to travel other than in private cars.

And cars, too, are becoming more technology friendly. Bluetooth-equipped steering wheels allowing for hands-free phone use and voice activated dialing; power outlets and input jacks for i-Pods and satellite radio are on the rise. Built-in Wi-Fi is also now available in cars.

Portable technology is making us rethink how we travel. The winner of the first round of innovation was the private automobile. The winner of the second was arguably the curbside bus. The next winner remains to the seen.

Photo by Ben Dodson

Joseph Schwieterman is a professor in the School of Public Service and director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago.

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