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As FAA moves to relax device rules, ridership on gadget-friendly trains and buses surges

Train commuters use mobile devices
Metro-North railroad commuters use mobile devices on an evening rush-hour train from New York to Connecticut on Thursday, June 20, 2013.David Friedman /

On Friday the FAA announced it will likely loosen some of the restrictions against on-board gadget use, but it likely won't changes the minds much of travelers who have been ditching flying and driving for riding the train and bus for years.

Ever since the recession hit, rail and buses are up, flying and driving is down. In part, it's because of how much easier it is to use gadgets and stay connected, transit officials, passengers, and the author of a new study says.

"I like to think of my morning train time in a similar vein to sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper eating breakfast - except I'm on my way to work," said Eliott Burr, an Edelman account executive in Silicon Valley. "I also don't have to worry about crashing or getting a ticket for using my gadgets while driving."

After decades of moderate decline, intercity bus service went up from 5.1 percent growth in 2009 to 7.5 percent in 2012. During the same period, Amtrak says its ridership shot up 49 percent. Meanwhile, government data shows airline boardings have slowed significantly, growing only .6 percent, down from 5.1 percent in 2009, and the average number of miles driven per capita has fallen 6 percent since 2004.

Flying can be a pricey hassle, growing only more expensive, and its security screening procedures more probing, during the economic downturn. High gas prices, insurance, and shifting driving habits have taken more wheels off the road. A one-way from New York to DC is $15 on Megabus or $82 on Amtrak. For the same route, flying might cost $283, or, based on the IRS standard mileage rate, $112.5 to drive.

At the same time, personal technology use has skyrocketed, with the number of American adults who own smartphones rising from 35 percent to 56 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. No doubt when those gizmo owners get on trains and buses, they're simply going to bring their gadgets. But that's not all.

"I get more work done," said actor and comedian Jim Dailakis, who prefers to take the train over flying between gigs if rail is available and cheaper. Plus, there's no sitting in a "cramped seat playing 'the armrest belongs to my elbow' game," said Dailakis.

Professor Joe Schwieterman at the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at De Paul University and his researchers annually stalk transit passengers to document how many of them are using devices onboard. From 2010 to 2013, his latest study found gadget use on Greyhound Bus Lines went up from 17.9 percent to 43.6 percent. On Amtrak it rose from 34.4 percent to 52.1 percent.

Schwieterman partially attributes the recent increases in rail and bus ridership to how much friendlier they are towards whipping out a laptop or iPhone and getting online.

“Between security, having to turn devices off before takeoff and the lack of elbow room, airline cabins can be a bit of a technology wasteland,” said Schwieterman. “Trains and bus travel are well-positioned to take up the slack.”

The simple fact that a train or a bus is on the ground and allows for riders to either hop on free WiFi, even if its unreliable, or use cellphone towers, is pushing some passengers to change their mode of transportation. Alec Baldwin, and anyone else, can play Words with Friends on the bus without making headlines. Trying to balance an Excel sheet while cruising down the highway could prove deadly. Cellphone use while driving is illegal in a number of states. So if you want to fiddle with your electronics while on the go, the train, or bus, is the ticket.

"Passengers continue to indicate that that availability of WiFi is one of the reasons for choosing Amtrak," said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole. New Jersey Transit too this week announced it was adding WiFi, after surveys showed it as one of passengers' number one requests. (On-time arrival still tops).

And American Bus Association spokesman Dan Ronan said feedback from riders is that they're picking buses for their WiFi and plugins, in particular, discount bus lines, which, according to the Chaddick Institute, saw a 30.6 surge in operations 2011-2012.

Marketing professional Julie Beltz often opts for Bolt or Megabus bus for hops up from DC to New York for visits with friends, choosing it over flying or driving. "I can leave DC in the morning, and still put in most of a day's work before arriving in NYC ," she said.

Besides the under $50 price -- "Good luck getting a flight from Reagan National to JFK for that," she says -- there's another benefit to riding the bus while connecetd that flying and driving can't beat.

"People you're working with won't be able to tell that you're out of the office on your way to your niece's Sweet Sixteen," said Beltz, "without using accumulated time off."