Talking Transit: Understanding why people take transit—and why some don't - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking Transit: Understanding why people take transit—and why some don't

La Citta Vita (cc)

People are most likely to want to live in mixed-use environments where they can find housing, offices and retail.

Published monthly, MPC’s Talking Transit provides updates about transit-related activities around the world.

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Did You Know?

According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press and GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications in July 2014, 59 percent of Americans interviewed think that the “economic benefits from good-quality highways, railroads and airports outweigh the cost to taxpayers.” These results suggest that people recognize the importance of offering good transportation services.

New polling on willingness to take transit

The Mobility Attitudes Survey, released this week by TransitCenter, a Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) partner, offers intriguing insight into the travel preferences of people living all across the United States. Roughly 12,000 people in 46 metropolitan areas around the country (including Chicago) completed the survey through an online system.

The study, which provides a better understanding of who takes public transportation and why, offers us important up-to-date data. One of the most interesting findings is that while baby boomers are, for the most part, unwilling to ride transit, people under 30 want more transit options. The fact that young people take transit happily is not a reflection of their single status, the study found; indeed, parents of all ages are just as likely to take transit as single people within their age group.

Rather, the study points to a generational change that may have long-term ramifications. Cosmopolitan Youth, as the study terms them, defer getting a driver’s license until well after they turn 16, are “very urban,” “enamored with technology” and “live to be out and about.” Planners must understand these trends and track their changes to ensure that our transportation system adapts to the needs of tomorrow’s residents.

The value of mixed-use neighborhoods

According to the study results, today 50 percent of people interviewed live in exclusively residential neighborhoods, either in major cities, in the suburbs or in towns. Yet the reality is that only about 30 percent of people interviewed want to live in such neighborhoods. Furthermore, when looking at adults over 60, fully 56 percent desire to live in mixed use neighborhoods while only 33 percent do. The study emphasized that those areas are most likely to attract people to ride transit, as well.

The Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) work on transit-oriented development is designed to build communities that fulfill those demands by creating new and improved neighborhoods where a mix of uses is concentrated in areas close to transit stations. By working to advance regulatory reform while also encouraging community acceptance through public participation, MPC is increasing the prevalence of walkable, livable and transit-accessible neighborhoods in the Chicago region.

Encouraging commuters to take transit 

The TransitCenter study produced another very interesting finding: When employers offer transit benefits—often by facilitating and subsidizing employees’ purchase of transit passes before taxes—their employees are far more likely to take public transportation to work than those whose employers offer no such benefits. In fact, both in cities with poor- and high-quality transit, use of public transportation was at least six times higher among those who were offered transit benefits.

These results provide empirical evidence for the importance of MPC’s work on Commute Options, a pilot to encourage employers to help their workers learn more about alternatives to driving alone. One of the ways they can do so is to provide employees easy, fast ways to get, and then use, a transit card. The Ill. Dept. of Transportation is currently working to institutionalize Commute Options. If the state is effective in setting up the program, the result is likely to be increasing transit use.

Similarly, the study asked commuters what characteristics of transit systems were most important to them in encouraging them to actually use transit. The top four characteristics among people of all age ranges were transit speed, stops close to home or work, cost and reliability. Less important to most of those who were interviewed were issues such as the availability of wi-fi services, the comfort of seats and the availability of parking at stations. These results demonstrate one of the core facts that should be understood about transit: The best way to get people on board is to provide them a quick, reliable and relatively cheap ride. Those basics should be at the core of transit service planning.

Connecting transit wants to a funding reality

One of the goals of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan is to double the use of public transportation in the metropolitan area over the next 25 years. TransitCenter’s study provides some important information about who is most likely to take advantage of improved transit, and what changes may need to be made to encourage more people to do so.

Yet the Chicago region will have to commit significantly more resources to its public transportation system if it is to achieve the sort of ridership growth that GO TO 2040 sets out. MPC’s work on transportation policy is set to ramp up this fall and next year. MPC supports the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s effort to increase the state gas tax by 8 cents and index it to inflation, as well as its proposal—a major priority of MPC—to use performance measures to determine which projects should be funded. Those new funding sources will play an important role in achieving increasing transit use and responding to the demands identified by TransitCenter.


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