A report from the TransitCenter has discovered something that's obvious to transit riders but not always to our urbanist elites: Transit succeeds when it is fast (in terms of total trip time and reliable).
While we know this from the actual human behavior we call ridership, it's also nice to see it confirmed in people's conscious thoughts, in the form of surveys. Actual behavior is a better signal than surveys when the two contradict, but when behavior and surveys agree, the survey adds something useful: a sense that people are not only making certain choices, but are conscious of those choices and able to discuss them. That, in turn, is good for intelligent policymaking.
They commissioned a study of 12,000 people across the country, representing large cities from each of the major regions, asking them a variety of questions on their attitudes towards and use of transit. While the document is full of interesting insights, this chart is really key:
The table below reports on a variation on the same question:
Look at the top 6 responses to the question of "I would ride transit more if...":
- it took less time (travel time)
- stations/stops were closer to my home/work (travel time)
- it was clearly the less expensive transportation option
- the travel times were more reliable (reliability)
- there were different transit modes available
- it ran more frequently (travel time and reliability)
Four of the top 6 responses to this question concern travel time and reliability. How quickly can I get to my destination? How sure am I that the trip is going to work consistently? And how much does it cost? These are the same questions we ask when choosing to drive, or picking a commuting route.
The low ranking of frequency is not too surprising, because it simply shows that people are reacting to total trip time and reliability, and are not all that fixated on specific elements of that total. The problem with all surveys of this type is that they are divorced from the actual math of how optimal travel times are achieved for the most poeple. When this is factored in, frequency is paramount in delivering the desired outcome. On the other hand, shorter walking distances (item 2), if defined as a goal, is deterimental to total travel time because it implies lower frequencies and thus longer waits.
Note what isn't important in the respondents' assessment of their own mode choice factors: "nicer" vehicles, "more comfortable" seats. When it comes to how they make actual choices in their actual situation, these are far less critical than whether the service is useful. Obviously, people have minimum quality standards for these things, but these data suggest that they are finding those minimum standards to be met by the transit they see around them in the US.
Given the relative unimportance of even the most basic civility features like cleaniness and comfort, what importance can be ascribed to the even more optional features such as romantic vehicles or public art? (Not questioning the larger value of these things, but only their relevance to people's mode choices.) This data needs to be faced by anyone who argues that we should have quantitatively less transit so that shelters can be cuter, or so that our experience will be more like Disneyland, or simply because -- in the interests of "place mobility" -- people should want to travel more slowly.
What matters in transit ridership? These are the big ones: Travel time. Reliability. Cost. If you want to get people out of cars and into transit, start there.