Flickr/Christiano Betta

According to a new study, free Wi-Fi makes travelers more likely to opt not to drive

Forget about better bus routes or plusher subway cars. The best way to get people to ride mass transit might simply be to offer free wireless.

According to a just-released DePaul University study, riders are more likely than ever to spend their commute plugged in, whether they're traveling by plane, train or bus. All told, more than 90 percent of passengers use a digital device at some point during their trip. And more often than not, it's a device with a screen, rather than a cell phone or iPod. 

That in itself isn't so surprising: the proliferation of handheld technology means it's almost impossible to disconnect. More interesting is this little nugget, from a blog post by researcher Joseph Schwieterman:

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.

More and more, mass transportation is changing its model to attract connected customers. Megabus and BoltBus both provide free Wi-Fi (along with power outlets). Amtrak offers Internet on all Acela trips. Even Greyhound is getting in on the action, albeit slower than others. According to Open WiFi Spots, several regional and urban transit systems also invite riders to log on. You can check your email on Seattle ferries and Austin buses, among others. 

Schwieterman cautions against reading too much into the data. "It would be a stretch to argue that portable technology will appreciably diminish the share of travel by car anytime soon," he writes. Still, Wi-Fi might be a (relatively) inexpensive way for transit systems to get people out of their cars and onto trains, subways and buses.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Cristiano Betta.

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