According to Online and Underground, a survey launched earlier this spring by the New Cities Foundation, Ericsson and the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), 77% of surveyed subway systems provide their customer with some level of internet access, either in stations (73%) or on board trains (58%). Over the next three years, 68% of surveyed subway systems plan on extending broadband connectivity in their existing stations.

Extending into one of the last internet-free urban reaches, underground connectivity is arguably an unnecessary or unwelcome over-saturation. In an age where connectivity matters, however, the number of urban travellers glancing at their phones is on the rise. Being online is increasingly important to the urban experience as it provides citizens with the freedom and flexibility they desire. This latter point matters for the future of cities.

Cities are growing at an astonishing rate, some expected to double or even triple in the near future. Gridlocked urban traffic is widely recognized as environmentally, economically and socially expensive. As the arteries and veins of the city, public transport – and underground transportation in particular – is essential.

A connected commute via public transport, as opposed to an hour stuck in traffic, is the executive’s head start. Doubling as a mobile workspace, it helps unlock underutilized time and extend the working day, both for classic commuters and the growing class of flexible workers on the go.

Just as in-flight internet connectivity is a game-changer for many frequent travellers, so too will being able to continue working during extended underground journeys. This increased flexibility will ultimately make urban centres less congested and more livable, as the benefits of being online and productive en route help incentivize against personal vehicle use.

A key challenge is providing customers with sufficient space and comfort to work, without compromising overall carrying capacity. While coping with peak demand during rush hour remains the top priority, solutions could include designing flexible carriages which offer collapsible working spaces or dedicated executive working environments.

Connected travel is particularly relevant for train journeys between urban zones – the Paris-London corridor, for example, or between the multiple cores of urban megapolises such as the Bohai Sea Ring or Pearl River Delta. These vast intercity economic regions will face skyrocketing commuting times, particularly as concerns over climate change and rising oil prices make air travel less feasible.

Integrated networks of mobile “work pods”, with all the convenience and functionality of a co-working space, could increase productivity and decrease urban congestion. Ultimately, these will also serve to ensure a region’s economic dynamism and competitiveness.

How many cities offer WiFi underground?

Author: Claus Mullie is a research assistant at New Cities Foundation                    .