Reuters

Quality service isn't enough -- systems need to create an "emotional" draw, some experts argue.

A strong mass transit system needs frequent and reliable service to maintain its ridership, and the ability to reach job centers across a metro area (not just in the central business district) helps too. But even systems that meet these requirements struggle to attract new riders in cities with high levels of car ownership. After all, a car offers frequency, reliability, and job access too.

So these cities and systems are stuck figuring out ways to entice people out of their cars and into the transit station. Sometimes an incentive program, such as giving away free fare passes, is enough to get drivers to try riding. When these promotions run out, however, most people will simply return to their cars again — unless the system finds other ways to sustain the switch.

That's the challenge outlined by a group of Swedish researchers, led by Lauren Redman, in the latest issue of the journal Transport Policy. Redman and company argue that basic levels of quality service and fleeting incentive programs aren't enough to convert habitual drivers into habitual riders. They conclude that the most effective way for transit systems to close the deal with drivers is to identify what they love about cars and bring those qualities to the experience of riding:

[T]here is evidence that access to a private motor vehicle is a key hindrance to an individual’s demand for PT services. If aiming to attract private car users, it is important to determine or enhance the underlying motivations for using private vehicles and translate these into attributes that are emulated by PT services.

That's easier said than done, of course, but the researchers offer three general suggestions for achieving it. (The researchers don't spend much time on congestion or road pricing policies, which also draw drivers to transit, likely because such initiatives are outside the power of a transit agency.)

First they recommend that transit agencies pay more attention to rider perceptions. Too often, argue the researchers, transit operators evaluate service quality based on criteria they consider important — even if riders don't feel the same. If a bus system has a good average reliability throughout the day, for instance, that might not matter to a rider who has a bad experience during rush hour. These single "critical incidents" can influence rider perceptions of a transit system that's strong by other objective measures. (See: the "confirmation bias.")

Next they believe agencies should target the motivations that cause people to drive instead of ride. In many cases this motivation is comfort and convenience. For that reason, the researchers tout fare or ticket integration programs that make the riding process simpler and, in many cases, even cheaper. (A recent ticket integration program in Finland reportedly encouraged a 10 to 20 percent shift away from private car use.) Improved travel information — particularly real-time, digital updates — may also be a strong draw.

Their third point of emphasis is that context matters. Agencies would be wise to recognize that not all drivers have the same potential to become riders. New residents to an area might be particularly inclined to switch travel modes, for instance, so programs that target this subset of the population may be cost-effective and successful. Similarly, places that have a high volume of "choice" riders — those who could take a car but choose instead to ride — may take more note of efforts like station and security upgrades, relative to basic qualities like speed.

So while frequency and reliability are critical to good transit, and incentives can often get drivers to sample the goods, sustaining this mode shift requires an understanding of the perceptions, motivations, and contexts that govern a person's travel decisions. That's the technical argument made by the researchers. Their casual one is that the emotional side of transit might be as important to drivers as the physical one:

If it was possible for car users to establish emotional and symbolic connections with PT [public transit], they might be more likely to shift away from regularly opting to use their private cars. Yet, this is no small task.

Top image: Brian Snyder/Reuters

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