Metro plan to bring Wi-Fi to subway could attract new riders

Riders on the Metro Purple Line could soon have access to Wi-Fi and cellular service.
Riders on the Metro Purple Line could soon have access to Wi-Fi and cellular service.
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As the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority moves ahead with plans to bring Wi-Fi and cellular service to the Red and Purple Line subways, new research suggests it could boost ridership.

A study from DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development finds the ability to use one's smartphone is influencing commuting behavior and driving more people to use transit.

The researchers observed commuter behavior on Chicago Metra trains starting in 2009 and found last year that 56 percent of riders were actively engaged with technology during their trips, a three-fold increase since observation began.

Researchers correlate the rise in smartphone use with a bump in ridership since the transit agency installed Wi-Fi on trains in 2014. The number of passenger trips jumped 1.3 percent, despite fare increases and an improving economy, factors that usually chip away at transit use.

"It’s fascinating how our growing dependence on electronic devices is the way we’re making decisions now," said Joseph Schwieterman, study co-author and director of the Chaddick Institute. "We think about having that productive time with our device."

He suggests transit agencies that offer connectivity through Wi-Fi or cellular service will be better poised to take advantage of this trend.

In Los Angeles, where train ridership has been declining over the past two years, Metro is currently piloting Wi-Fi service at Union Station with plans to bring Internet and cellular service to the Purple and Red Line subways in coming months. 

The Wi-Fi program was originally announced last winter and scheduled to be up and running by this past summer, but it's been held up by contract negotiations between Metro's wireless contractor and other wireless companies.