A new study published last week by the Transit Cooperative Research Program shows that when it comes to transit, people want nice things – like air conditioning, a seat, on-time arrival, and maybe a plug for their iPhone.
The research team surveyed residents of Salt Lake City, Chicago and Charlotte to determine how much these and other transit amenities were “worth” in terms of time spent in travel. The answer is “a lot.” “Taken together,” the study concluded, “the importance of non-traditional transit service attributes is equivalent to 13 to 29 minutes of in-vehicle travel time.” In other words, travelers are willing to spend an additional 13 minutes or more traveling via high-quality transit service than they would be willing to spend in a lower-quality alternative.
Most of the “non-traditional transit service attributes” examined in the study aren’t exactly luxuries. In fact, many of them should really be considered standard features of decent transit service: regular, frequent service throughout the day; vehicles with adequate temperature control and comfortable seats; and secure, well-lit stations. The mere fact that these attributes are labeled as “premium” or “non-traditional” characteristics is something of a grim commentary on the current status of transit service in the U.S.
A few of the transit amenities – such as real-time arrival information, wi-fi, and on-board power outlets – are still relatively new, but as we discussed in our 2013 report, A New Way to Go, they are proving to be very valuable to transit riders and can be a relatively low-cost way to boost ridership.
One other interesting conclusion of the study is that many travelers simply aren’t aware of the existence of local transit options that could meet their needs. As Eric Jaffe writes in the Atlantic Cities today, providing information about the availability of transit options would be particularly useful at times in life when people are reevaluating their transportation needs and forming new habits.
There are two important upshots of the study. The first is that existing travel demand models that incorporate only travel time and cost in forecasting future demand for transit are likely missing a big part of the story. The quality of transit service – in addition to its speed –shapes individuals’ transportation decisions. By providing new tools for quantifying the impacts of transit service improvements, the study should add an important new analytical tool to planners’ toolboxes.
Second, the study showcases opportunities to boost transit ridership that may be currently going unrealized. Publicizing the existence of transit service, fixing broken air conditioners, installing better lights at transit stops, and making wi-fi and real-time information available to riders can make an important difference in enticing would-be transit riders out of their cars and onto buses and trains. The recent move toward bus rapid transit and express bus service is a recognition that service quality matters when it comes to drawing new riders. There is no reason, however, why many of the improvements evaluated in the TCRP study could not be implemented on the regular bus routes that serve as the backbone of transit systems in many American cities.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.