What Makes Transit Successful? Survey Says It’s Frequency, Reliability and Shorter Travel Times

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | July 12, 2016

A passenger waits for a Dallas Area Rapid Transit Train. Image via flickr/loudtiger.

A passenger waits for a Dallas Area Rapid Transit Train. Image via flickr/loudtiger.

Why are some public transportation routes and systems successful while others aren’t? A new study by the advocacy group TransitCenter seeks to answer that question, based on the responses of thousands of passengers.

It may seem like an easy question, but often it’s one that roils even the best-made transit plans.

Take, for example, Seattle’s three-mile light rail extension. Its ridership has increased from 35,000 to 57,000 per day. On the other hand, Atlanta’s new downtown streetcar only attracts roughly 1,000 riders per day, roughly one-sixth the projected ridership. The survey sought to explain, in part, why not all transit is created equal in the minds of users.

A well-used transit system depends largely on the walkability of its nearby urban infrastructure and the frequency and reliability of its service, according to the survey’s findings. Things like wi-fi and extra power outlets — sometimes touted as important amenities by transit agencies — were among the least important improvements to riders. Station quality, real-time tracking and reduced travel times ranked higher.

The findings were published in the TransitCenter’s report issued Tuesday, based on survey responses from some 3,000 individuals from 17 metropolitan areas across the country. It follows a similar 2014 survey. The chart below shows how riders would value hypothetical service improvements. Article continues below chart.

Via TransitCenter

Via TransitCenter

Underscoring the importance of walkability, the survey found that 80 percent of so-called all-purpose riders (people who use public transportation for a variety of needs) and slightly more than 50 percent of commuters and occasional riders walk to public transportation. Unsurprisingly, more all-purpose riders use transit systems in well-connected, walkable cities.

The report also challenged the assumption that many riders are stuck using transit because they don’t have cars. “The idea that people without cars are ‘captive’ and will use transit regardless of quality is severely overstated,” the report stated. “It often stands as an implicit excuse for poor service in denser neighborhoods that would use transit the most, lack of market orientation, and over-commitment of resources to chasing ‘choice’ riders in low-density suburbs.”

The survey “shows that discussions about transit often ignore what really drives transit ridership,” said Christof Spieler, Houston METRO board member, in a press release issued by TransitCenter. “In Houston, we bucked the trend by redesigning our entire local bus network to improve frequency and travel time — and total ridership is up more than 10 percent.”

A report accompanying the survey offers three key policy reccomendations for agencies looking to improve their transit service, based on survey responses. Transit Center writes:

Transit ridership will grow if policymakers:

  1. Concentrate development around transit corridors, and make the walk to transit safe, easy, and pleasant.
  2. Concentrate transit improvements in walkable places with large numbers of residents and destinations.
  3. Pay special attention to increasing frequency and reducing transit travel time.

Houston, in particular, was highlighted in the report as a “poster child for a frequency- and ridership-oriented bus system redesign,” based on its recent bus route overhaul. “Though system planners caution it will take years for the full effect of the reorganization to be felt, ridership on the local bus network has increased by 3 to 4 percent overall, with double-digit percentage increases on weekends.”

Spieler and TransitCenter have, however, differed on the definition of “high-frequency” routes. TransitCenter only considers lines that run, on average, every 15 minutes every day of the week to be high frequency. And according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology and TransitCenter’s AllTransit interactive database, Houston’s transit network serves some groups better than others. So, while black and Latino residents comprise 69 percent of those living within walking distance of transit, they are only 54 percent of those living close to these high-frequency lines. For white people, the figures are 24 percent and 36 percent respectively. METRO officials have questioned the organization’s definition of high-frequency service.

Still, the TransitCenter’s report accompanying its most recent survey considers METRO’s redesign a success. “In total, the agency increased the number of people within walking distance of frequent transit by almost 50 percent, at minimal cost to Houston taxpayers,” it wrote.

According to Spieler, “If every city followed the report’s advice and focused transit investments on frequency, travel time, and walkability, we could make transit useful to millions more people across the country.”

Read more about rider attitudes here

And check out how your city’s transportation compares with the AllTransit database.

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