Susan Sermoneta/Flickr

Twin Cities riders believed transit arrived more quickly at shelters or stations compared with stops at curbside signs.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: Waiting for the bus can be brutal. Sometimes it gets so bad that our minds start to play tricks on us, and the wait feels even longer than it actually is. A 1993 study found that one minute of wait time felt closer to 4.4 minutes of travel time. That means that if you have a 20-minute commute, you might feel like you should have been home already after a 5-minute wait.

Fortunately, transit agencies and experts are starting to appreciate ways to make the wait feel better. In addition to, you know, actually running more buses, deploying real-time transit information makes wait times far more bearable. And, believe it or not, the quality of the bus stop itself might make a difference, too—with a general rule that the nicer the setting, the easier the wait.

That's what transport scholar Yingling Fan of the University of Minnesota and colleagues report in a new, unpublished working paper (spotted by Eric Roper at the Star Tribune). The researchers observed actual wait times among 822 riders at 36 bus and light rail stops across the Twin Cities. They then boarded the transit vehicle and surveyed the riders to measure their perceived wait times—how long the wait felt.

As with most cities, the quality of transit stations or stops in Minneapolis-St. Paul varies considerably. There are sleek new light rail stations, and there are also hundreds of high-ridership bus stops that lack any sort of coverage, often prompting riders to duck the elements in nearby stores. The researchers split the stop categories into three types: no shelter (e.g., a curbside transit sign), a basic bus shelter (a bench and protection from bad weather), and a full-fledged station (partially or completely enclosed).

On paper, stop quality shouldn't affect wait time, but in the minds of riders it seems to do just that. At a no-shelter stop, riders perceived a 5-minute wait to feel longer than that—about 6 minutes, on average. But riders at the other types of stops, either shelters or full stations, had the opposite experience: a 5-minute wait felt closer to 3 minutes. The researchers report:

The presence of some type of shelter does appear to reduce perceptions of waiting time for actual waits of 10 minutes or less. Shelter type, however, does not appear to make a significant difference in terms of time perceptions. … Within the first 10 minutes, however, the greatest impact on estimated waiting times appears to come from any shelter versus no shelter.

The study did have some shortcomings. For starters, a 5-minute wait isn't long at all, fitting well within the definition of show-up-and-go service. Perceived wait times converged after 10 minutes regardless of station type, though the findings for riders who waited this long weren't as reliable, since there were far fewer of them. There's also the general human tendency to round number into five and tens; someone who registers a three-minute wait might call it five out of instinct.

The authors don't speculate much about why waiting at a covered shelter or station beats waiting at a curbside sign. Maybe the lighting or coverage or seating reduced stress in general, or maybe the shelter (like hold music) just conveyed the sense that someone cares.

Whatever the reason, the findings are in line with other work showing that psychological factors influence transit satisfaction. This means that providing a basic bus shelter (which in the Twin Cities costs about $6,000) might be a low-cost way to improve the perception of service without actually improving service at all. That's not an ideal fix—better for the bus to arrive often and on-time—but it might keep riders happy enough with the idea of transit until the reality catches up.

(Top image via Susan Sermoneta/Flickr.)

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