Even American Drivers Like Mass Transit More Than They Think

A quarter of car commuters gave up their parking permits after a recent trial in Boston.

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In recent years, transportation experts have found that if drivers get a free taste of mass transit, many of them find they actually want a bit more. The approach has worked, albeit on a limited trial basis, in developed cities around the world: from Kyoto to Leeds to greater Copenhagen. Transit ridership in Châteauroux jumped after the mayor made the system free. Swedish commuters who rode free transit for a month found themselves more satisfied with it than they thought they'd be.

Now we can even add American drivers to the mix. In an upcoming issue of the journal Transport Policy, a research duo reports that nearly 30 percent of regular car commuters in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, gave up their full-time parking permits immediately after a brief free-transit trial, with most downgrading to an occasional permit and a few making a full switch to transit. About 25 percent had stuck with the change six months later.

The test, done by Maya Abou-Zeid of the American University of Beirut and Moshe Ben-Akiva of M.I.T., was conducted with M.I.T. employees in the fall of 2008. Sixty-seven university workers, all with full-time parking permits, agreed to commute by transit for a few days during one trial week and complete follow-up surveys. The participants were generally quite set in their driving ways: 47-years-old and part of a two-car household, on average, with eight never having ridden transit to work.

Afterward Abou-Zeid and Ben-Akiva found that the drivers who made the switch had a transit rider's mindset. Generally speaking they expressed less satisfaction with their car commutes, more favorable impressions of getting something done while riding transit, and a much greater consciousness about the cost of their commute, compared to those who stuck with their cars after the study. While the group that switched had longer average transit commutes (90 minutes versus 74 minutes), they also had longer car commutes (57 minutes to 44 minutes).

Interestingly, they also found that those people who did not switch became happier with their drive to work after the study, even though nothing about it had changed. Abou-Zeid and Ben-Akiva think this renewed affection might have occurred because drivers could now say they'd thoroughly evaluated their commute options and decided that the car was the way to go. In fact, both groups became happier with their new commute after the study — suggesting this sense of post-investigative ease went both ways.

The work offers some guidelines for implementing similar programs in other cities. For starters, since most switchers had a transit mindset, employers or policy leaders might be wise to survey their employees or residents ahead of time and target the free transit program toward those most inclined to a change. They might also wait for the right time to strike: fuel prices were particular high during the M.I.T. trial.

The authors are particularly hopeful about free-transit programs in the United States, because they suspect many Americans simply haven't given transit a try. In study with Swiss commuters done by the same researchers and published earlier this year, none of the test participants made the subsequent switch to transit. "Because of a generally weaker public transportation culture in Boston than in Switzerland, MIT participants who switched might not have seriously considered using public transportation until they experimented with it during the trial," they conclude.

Top image: Stephen Orsillo/Shutterstock

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