July 02--As Metra searches for a way to offer wireless Internet access for its increasingly tech-savvy riders, a new study concludes the amenity could help soothe customers irritated by late trains and boost ridership.
Laptops, tablets and other devices that access Wi-Fi are being used by more Metra riders than ever -- more than half the passengers -- and the ever-more-sophisticated gear is changing how people commute, according to a study released Wednesday by DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
Commuters increasingly want to multitask by using social media such as Twitter and Facebook while listening to music on their devices, according to "The Digitally Connected Commuter," a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune.
Although Metra says it has tried to add Wi-Fi, the nation's second-largest commuter rail agency has been unable to follow the lead of Amtrak and a growing number of other commuter rail agencies, including Boston's. Without Wi-Fi connectivity, Metra has "missed opportunities to enhance its image" and increase ridership, the study concluded.
So far, Metra has not found a partner to pick up the cost of installing the equipment, which one estimate pegged at $70 million systemwide. But the agency is trying again.
"Considering the remarkable rate in which the use of personal technology is growing, Metra has a strong incentive to pursue strategies that can be implemented relatively quickly, even if this entails relying on a subscription-based Wi-Fi service," the study said.
In a survey of more than 3,000 Metra and South Shore Line commuters, researchers found that the number of passengers using smartphones, laptops, iPads and tablets jumped sharply from 2013 to 2014, the fourth year of significant increases.
"We were stunned at the growth in digital activity this year considering that personal devices have been ubiquitous for some time now," said Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul professor and director of the Chaddick Institute. "Commuters are optimizing their time spent aboard commuter trains in far more sophisticated ways than just a few years ago.
"Armed with gadgets providing instant access to social media, many young people far prefer a train ride to being stuck behind the wheel," Schwieterman said. "Executives see the train as the extension of the office. Lawyers consider it a 'billable hour.' Transit providers, unfortunately, have done little to leverage this new advantage."
Passengers who feel trapped on late-running trains may find that Wi-Fi "can serve as an 'insurance policy' to give customers a productive and emotionally soothing outlet when on severely delayed trains," the study found.
"A few years ago, people (on trains) would mostly do just one thing at a time, like reading or napping, with perhaps a quick cellphone call thrown into the mix," said Marisa Schulz, assistant director of the Chaddick Institute.
"Now, they perform multiple activities on LCD screens while wearing earphones. By emailing, catching up on social media and following Twitter feeds -- sometimes all at once -- commuters mix work and play. Their onboard persona scarcely resembles that of the stereotypical commuter -- an executive calmly reading the morning newspaper," Schulz said.
The DePaul study, which has been updated annually, found that 54.4 percent of passengers are now using such devices on their commutes -- a 40 percent jump since 2012.
The use of tablets and e-readers has also increased to 1 in 12 passengers, or nearly 8 percent, compared with 6.4 percent in 2013.
The study noted that a tablet's space-saving quality, battery life and ability to boot up quickly make it "almost ideal" for commuters' briefcases and purses.
Even without installing wireless Internet connections on trains, Metra ought to adopt such low-cost strategies as adding Wi-Fi to its major downtown terminals, the study said. "Remarkably few" outlying stations offer Wi-Fi, researchers said.
Metra should also take steps to put more power outlets on trains, the study said.
The agency has been doing that, ordering outlets aboard the Electric Line's 160 new Highliner cars and installing them on passenger coaches as they are refurbished.
"These efforts would signal to customers that transit providers are committed to incremental steps toward the development of a fully Wi-Fi equipped system," the study said.
Metra nearly pulled the plug on adding Wi-Fi last year after officials questioned the price tag. A one-year pilot project on a single line, the Rock Island, would run $3.4 million, officials said.
Now Metra says it is trying again to find a Wi-Fi partner and agrees that adding Internet access will "improve the riding experience."
In May, the agency issued a formal request for proposals from companies interested in providing wireless service at no cost to Metra. In return, Metra is offering vendor branding and advertising benefits.
Proposals had been due July 11, but Metra extended the deadline until September because potential responders wanted more time, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.
Metra prefers that Wi-Fi be provided free to riders but might consider a plan offering enhanced-speed "premium" service for a fee.
Commuters questioned Tuesday were wary of paying more for their rides, even if Wi-Fi were available.
BNSF Line customers, in particular, said they were more concerned about on-time trains than Wi-Fi.
Nevertheless, Carolyn Nemetz, 48, of Brookfield, said she'd love having wireless access on her daily trip downtown.
"It would be great," Nemetz said. "I would be more inclined to bring my laptop (on the train) as opposed to just my phone."
Mike Keach, 35, of La Grange, said having Wi-Fi would enable him to continue to work on emails during his ride home.
"That's an extra 20-30 minutes of work that I could get done," Keach said. "That would be helpful."
A copy of the study can be found at bit.ly/1kbYmml
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