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Abstract

Over the past several years, the use of portable electronic devices by passengers on intercity transportation services has risen markedly. To support the use of such devices, carriers have installed Wi-Fi systems, power outlets, and cell-phone signal boosters for passenger use. To fill a void in research about the effects of portable electronic technology on intercity travel behavior, this study evaluates newly collected data for 7,028 passengers on bus, train, and air trips. It explores how usage differs by mode and time of day, as well as the implications that these differences have on various sectors of the U.S. transportation system. Field researchers conducted visual surveys to measure the use of two basic types of devices: (1) those providing audio capability, such as cell phones, CD players, and digital music systems, and (2) those providing visual or audiovisual capacity, such as laptop computers, Blackberries and other high-end smart phones, DVD players, and I-Pods with screens. The data collection involved field observations in 14 states as well as the District of Columbia. The data suggests that the ability to use portable technology may be a driving force in the growth of “curbside” bus operators that are Wi-Fi equipped, such as Boltbus and Megabus. Twenty minutes into a trip, 38.7% of passengers are using some form of technology—twice the share of Greyhound, three percentage points more than on conventional Amtrak trains, and twenty percentage points more than airlines. Portable technology use on weekday runs of Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express, however, is even higher. An average, 47.8% of passengers on these trips are using technology at randomly selected points. On both Acela and conventional Amtrak trains, where the seating configuration is relatively spacious, passengers tend to use visual devices with LCD screens. On curbside bus operations, however, there is an almost equal mix of audio activities and visual/LCD-screen related activities. Interpreted broadly, the research suggests that the ability to use portable electronics may be a factor offsetting the longer travel times associated with certain bus and train trips, and providing a new incentive for travelers to use transportation services that operate to and from the downtown areas of major cities.

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