Each year public transport patronage peaks in March – university students are back, school is not yet on holiday, there are typically no public holidays (except if Easter is particularly early) and it’s a 31 day month. However, the same is largely true for May and August yet patronage in March is much higher than those two other months – how come? Well one theory is that each year there are new people who give public transport a go in March – often university students I suspect – but they find it so woeful that by May or August they’re back driving. We all know that many elements of Auckland’s public transport system leave much to be desired, but what particular things are most likely to put people off using PT?
Well, helpfully someone’s done a study into that recently and a Governing article highlights some of the key points:
Nothing ruins a public transportation rider’s day quite like waiting around for a train or bus that never shows up. Turns out that if it happens enough, riders will start giving up on transit, according to a new report.
University of California, Berkeley researchers examined exactly what effect a transit system’s unreliability has on its customers. While it’s well-known that reliability is important to riders, it’s less understood how, exactly, common transit problems impact the public’s likelihood to reduce their ridership in the long-term.
Some studies show that transit riders value consistent travel times even more than shorter travel times, making reliability an especially important issue for agencies to consider if they want to retain customers.
Researchers came up with a list of various ways transit can be considered “unreliable” — buses can show up late; mobile apps can offer inaccurate arrival information; subways can be so crowded that it’s impossible to find a seat, or even board — then surveyed public transit riders in the San Francisco area.
One statistic in the study stands out in particular and should give transit agencies pause: More than half of the riders said they had reduced their use of public transportation specifically because of its unreliability. Most of them didn’t just make fewer trips overall; rather, they switched to other modes of transportation to fill the void…
…Frequent, consistent service — and in particular, reliable transfers between stops — are what’s most important to riders, according to the study. Riders care most about getting picked up from their stop in 10 minutes or less, and they especially value being able to make their scheduled connections. They’re not so interested in whether their rides are crowded or whether they can find a seat.
More frequent services is certainly a fundamental principle in the new public transport network, though the importance of getting connections/transfers right is highlighted as undoubtedly there will be more connections that need to be made in the new network. Let’s hope Auckland Transport is making good progress in sorting out the details of its zone-based integrated fares system.
There are some other interesting findings:
The study also found that transit riders aren’t an unreasonable bunch. Negative experiences that involved issues that are beyond a transit agency’s direct control, like delays due to emergencies and traffic, only had a minimal impact on passengers’ choice to scale back their transit usage.
But a few key things in particular irk passengers: delays that occur once they board a vehicle and delays when they’re trying to make a transfer. Delays at transfer stops were more than twice as likely to make someone reduce their transit use than a delay at the point of origin. Riders were especially turned off by delays due to operational problems like backups in the system.
The study also found that people who own smartphones and have access to real-time arrival information are less likely to use public transit. The reason for this is unclear, but it could be that access to real-time information makes travelers more aware of delays.
In regards to the “real time information” used in Auckland’s PT system, the flaws in this system do seem to be putting people off catching the bus. I heard an interesting story the other day of someone waiting at the bus when a few other people came along, looked at a sign that said their bus was 20 minutes away or something, said “stuff it we’ll drive” (or something similar) and walked off. The twist to the story was that a bus turned up about two minutes later but by then they were gone. Another issue mentioned above which particularly annoys me is “delays that occur once they board the vehicle” – things like sitting there going nowhere so the bus can align to its timetable or waiting for drivers to switch.
Ultimately the research provides some very valuable information to transit agencies about what’s more or less important to make sure you get right.
At a time when transit agencies continue to take budgetary hurdles, the insights from the study are worth considering. Since certain failings have much larger impacts on ridership than others, it may be in public transportation agencies’ best interest to focus resources on minimizing those inconveniences in particular.
For example, it appears passengers prefer higher frequency stops with small vehicles than lower frequencies with large vehicles — even at the cost of overcrowding.
The research might be useful in guiding some operational decisions at agencies. In-vehicle delays are more likely to drive people away than delays at stops. So during disruptions, researchers propose cancelling trips in advance as opposed to holding full vehicles closer to the spot causing disruptions. That might seem counterintuitive — but not if the goal is to retain customers.
And if a delay is due to factors beyond an agency’s control, the report recommends that agencies have operators communicate that information to riders. It might also make sense to have a system in place to specifically provide guaranteed connections at transfer stations during times of infrequent service, since passengers are especially bothered by their inability to make connections.
In recent times it feels like Auckland Transport and the PT operators have been getting a lot of these little things wrong, which is starting to come through in the patronage stagnation. Turning things around will require getting right a lot of these little things and putting the customer first – something which really doesn’t feel like has been happening recently. It might mean we keep those people who give PT a go in March.