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Why don’t people use transit? They hate to wait and be late

MPC Research Assistant Cecilia Gamba authored this post

We’ve all experienced it: We’re on a train, maybe we’re running late, and we hear the dreaded announcement: “Your attention please: We are standing momentarily… ” Or the frustration of waiting 20 minutes for a bus and, when it finally arrives, two buses are bunched together, leapfrogging each other. These issues strongly affect the travel experience for riders, and over time they might lead some people to give up on public transit altogether. A research team at the University of California, Berkeley recently released a new study, reported by Governing magazine, showing that consistent travel times are even more important for customer satisfaction than short travel times.

The study sheds some light on which specific factors most influence riders’ perceptions of public transit and affect their choice to use it – or not. Transit networks are complex systems and problems can arise for a number of reasons, some of which are unavoidable. The UC Berkeley study found that riders are tolerant of negative experiences caused by factors beyond a transit agency’s control, such as medical emergencies or extreme weather; what annoys them are unexpected delays caused by system failures or backups. More to the point, after surveying transit riders in San Francisco, the researchers found that most people who reduced their use of public transit in favor of driving or other modes of transportation did so specifically because of transit’s unreliability.

Surveyed riders expected to wait a maximum of 10 minutes at a bus stop; they said they wanted to make scheduled connections smoothly and were particularly bothered by delays that occurred once they are aboard. What’s more, keeping customers informed is key: Nothing feels like a bigger waste of our valuable time than being stuck on a train, bus, or station platform for no apparent reason, especially in the era of instant knowledge available at your fingertips.

The key takeaway from the study: To increase loyalty and attract new riders, minimizing the occurrence of delays should be a primary concern for transit agencies. In a time of tight budgets and scarce resources, the potential for major capital improvements to expand transit service is limited. However, most transit agencies can and are taking steps to ensure current service is efficient and operations run smoothly -- which is encouraging, given that this strategy is shown to attract and retain riders who have the choice between transit and driving.

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