An interesting article in the Perth newspaper “The West Australian” highlights a potential culture shift that I had seen mentioned in a number of previous articles. A culture shift among young people away from cars and towards technology like laptops, iPads, Smartphones and so forth – technology that fits more easily with public transport use than driving everywhere.

Here’s a brief part of the article:

Generation Ys now represent more than one-third of all local train and bus commuters, with numbers expected to reflect worldwide trends and continue to soar.

New 2011 figures released by the Public Transport Authority show that commuters aged between 18 and 25 now make up 35 per cent of all train users and 40 per cent of all bus users – up from 30 and 38 per cent on last year.

The increase is being partly attributed to new communication technologies and the desire by young people to “stay connected”.

“Previous generations found freedom and flexibility through the car,” Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman said. “But Generation Ys find their freedom and flexibility by staying connected to their friends, family and workplaces through the various information devices – like their laptops, or iphones.

“They can stay connected on a bus or a train. They can bring the office with them. They can bring their study with them. They can bring their friends with them. They can’t if they’re driving.”

It’s always difficult to gauge the importance of things like this when it comes to understanding the revival of public transport over the past 20 years – which has been immense in Perth. However, I do think there’s some truth in new technologies making catching PT a more pleasant experience. You can be productive on the train with a laptop, you can relax in your own world with an iPod, you can stay in contact with your friends via your cellphone. None of this was particularly possible a mere 10 years ago. I certainly remember the first time I took a lengthy bus-trip listening to an iPod: it made the trip a whole heap more pleasant.

A useful question to consider is how we take advantage of these changing cultural trends. For so long public transport has been seen as the transport option of last choice, effectively a social welfare service for those too young, too old and too poor to drive. Perhaps we need to rethink ways in which to make PT the most attractive transport options, capitalising on its inherent advantage when it comes to new communication technologies. Perth is pretty onto this:

The PTA has recognised that more and more commuters are using communication technologies while travelling and have created a variety of social network tools to provide easy access to timetables and the latest service information.

There are also plans to fit trains with bluetooth wireless technology during the construction of the Perth City Link project to allow messages to be conveyed to commuters quickly.

One wonders how easy it would be to put free wifi on all the trains in Auckland – and perhaps all the buses in the longer term. While sure many people are switching to smartphones, I generally take the opportunity to connect to a wifi hotspot where I can so I’m able to save on my data usage. I’m also hopeful that PT in Auckland will become more engaged with new communication technologies. The MAXX website is still pretty much impossible to use on my Android smartphone.

I think it’s critical that we start showing public transport as the cutting edge, forward-looking way to travel – where you don’t have to spend your time concentrating on not crashing into the car in front of you. Instead, you can be productive, properly relaxed or connected with others while you travel. The combination of technology and PT can potentially give you much of your commuting time back to you.

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  1. Exactly, the service has to be there of course, so all of the improvements that this site argues for are vital but there is a great deal that can be done to improve the appeal and relevance of PT services in AK. Unfortunately Maxx is not a good brand and has an even worse web presence.

    Physically the new stations are pretty good but desperately need free Wifi, this has to be a quick fix. There is an argument for launching free wifi on trains with the new electric kit, so AT can launch a big marketing campaign around all the advantages at once: Modernity, Greenness, Connectivity, Coolness all big hits with younger people [but that is a long wait, I guess it depends on cost]. Especially if, as I believe, the CRL will be really underway by then, so AT will really be sitting on a product that is literally the future of Auckland. There is an opportunity for some really exciting station design as branding with all of this in mind, we’ve got to be ambitious, the CRL will quickly come to mean Auckland in the 21st Century like the Sky Tower did at the end of the last one.

    Soft tech is just as vital as hard tech. And with the improvements coming to PT in AK there is a great opportunity for riding a really successful brand and growing this thing like crazy. Timing is an interesting question, but there is no doubt that: The Future is Rapid.

  2. @Patrick – yes go the quick fix and get some stations setup with free wifi, it’s a no brainer. Sydney has, and has it working in the CBD tunnel too

  3. It’s also reflecting a trend from Asia, where car companies are struggling to sell to the “youth” market. A new car is no longer seen as a status symbol (or sign of increasing wealth), instead the latest electronic “toy” is now the must have status symbol.

    Even some of us old farts are seeing the benefits of mobile tools. 🙂 From observation, most laptop users on the train are older professionals (Boomers or Gen X).

  4. I think the first thing that should be done is to lobby the cell phone network companies to ensure the cell network has no dead spots in the entire urban rail network. This will allow people to make/receive important phone calls without risk of interruption.

    The key question with Wifi is what will it use to backhall the data. If it is going to use cell phone (WCDMA,GSM etc) networks the above step above done for the connection to be reliable. Performance is likely to be less than individual cell connections, This means the main advantage is cost. If the backhall is done by another technology (say power line communications through the overhead wire) there is a possibility of increased performance or reliability.

    Assuming good cell network coverage, another key question is when will Wifi be obsolete? I would define this as the point where cell phone based data is so fast, cheep and integrated into devices that people such as admin will not bother to change to even free wifi networks. Once this point is reached there is little point in providing Wifi.

    So, for how many more years is wifi going to be valuable to have? (assuming good cell phone coverage). I think there is probably a 5-10 year window to take advantage of.

    1. Absolutely agree about the improving the cell network coverage.

      Public Wifi in NZ is disappointing. Telecom Wireless Hotspots – $9.95 per hour or per 120MB. Web only. No Skype (I think).

      I use a 2degrees cellphone link, $20 for 1GB over 30 days.

      If they could just stop it cutting out in certain places it would be perfect.

      1. Until cellular data access is as cheap as text messaging it will take a while to take off and furthermore, smartphones are still quite expensive for the average phone user. However, everyone has a laptop so the market that would take advantage of free wifi or even wifi that say was free if you paid $10 more oughtper month when you bought your monthly would be great. In fact why doesn’t AT use that as a way to push people onto monthly passes! Buy a monthy pass and get free wifi, pay with cash on the bus and get to watch people surf 😉

  5. Well, wireless would be great – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Using a laptop assumes one can get a seat in the first place. With Southern Line afternoon performance deteriorating by the week it is beginning to appear as if Veolia are deliberately trying to put us off train travel – laptop or not. Where once we luxuriated in ADC 4-car sets, nowadays, as often as not, we are left to cram ourselves into 2-car ones.

    Or perhaps they are targeting that particular service just to get back at me for daring to complain?

  6. I’d rather we focus on the maintenance backlog and current projects rather than adding Wifi to every public transport vehicle. As others have noted the falling cost of mobile data plans makes Wifi less and less useful.

    1. Not suggesting doing this instead of hard tech work, and the real point, along with providing the service, is to disrupt the idea that PT is old-fashioned or low tech. It’s a cheap but important image win.

      To be able to say there is free WIFI on a PT service is powerful shorthand for its modernity.

  7. Agree! This has been one of my catch cries for carpooling for years: the reclaiming of your commute while in the passenger seat. In Sydney I commute by ferry with free wifi; my commute is not a chore. I do 30 minutes of work on the way to work, and 30 minutes of planning my weekend on the way home. It’s luxury.

  8. Really interesting paper by Todd Litman touches on this theme:

    Scroll down to page 9 and you will find a graph of the % of people in the age 16-19 actually trending down since 1983. Currently sitting about 10% below it’s peak.

    1. I would be really interested in knowing what the costs are for ASB to provide the free wifi, I’d assume they simply have wireless data connection via Telecom or Vodafone hooked up to a wireless base station. The most expensive part would likely be the data charges, the equipment needed to set it up would be more or less zilch.

  9. I travel and in and out of KL alot and while the novelty of the express train hasn’t worn off, the looped promotional programmes that play on the screens definitely has. Luckily, they have recently introduced wifi on the train and what a blessing that is – it makes the 28min journey between the city and the airport go by in a breeze….though it has to be said it drops out a few times in between.

  10. I think this would be perfect to trial on any Auckland – Hamilton trains, combined with power sockets for laptops. Combined with a decent coffee cart, this could really prove attractive to commuters compared to sitting in a car.

    It might even legitimately allow more flexible working, and spread demand throughout the day.

  11. For me, freedom and flexibility mean being able to walk to places. Public transit is nice when it extends my walking range, but I won’t take it as much if it’s too restrictive (in terms of buy-in-advance rules on intercity trains and other wretched things). Cars are the worst, because they try to replace feet instead of extending them.

  12. Yeah, I agree — that’s one of the big reasons I really love fast and flexible intercity rail over air travel, even when the cost is similar and airport access not too inconvenient. [There are other reasons too, of course — trains are generally just a more pleasant mode of travel — but “freedom” is one of the big ones.]

    That doesn’t mean I don’t reserve a seat often — I do, when I know what I want — but I don’t want to feel constrained by the need for reserving one way in advance; I want the system to adapt to my needs. I don’t like systems that seem to be “airlineifying” train travel by requiring reservations, and adding security-theater and the like.

    Conversely, I totally love the Shinkansen and other Japanese intercity rail with their option of “free” seating, and the huge amount of flexibility in reservations (you can reserve way in advance, from a huge number of convenient locations, or you can buy a ticket/reservation from a vending machine 30 seconds before your trip, and both options are fast and efficient), and the insanely streamlined transfer and boarding process.

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