Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Transit users often feel like they're waiting about 50 percent longer than they actually are.
The wait for the bus is the worst wait. It's worse than the wait to get to the front of the checkout line at Trader Joe's – there at least the endgame is within sight. It's worse than the wait at the doctor's office, where someone has thoughtfully provided magazines and betta fish and soothing music. It's worse than the wait for a table at any restaurant, where at least you have some hope of parlaying a free appetizer in exchange for all your patience.
The bus, on the other hand, is invisible until it's right in front of you. It could be a minute away. It could be 20 minutes away. You're craning your neck around the corner, praying for the first glimpse of that electronic sentinel – The No. 6! YES! – when for all you know, the blasted thing passed two minutes ago. And maybe you're late. Or it's sleeting. There's no one on hand to give reassuring updates or take escalating complaints. And the opportunities for distraction are minimal.
"There are all these insecure feelings you have when you're not sure what the full situation is," says Kari Watkins, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech who has studied how people wait for the bus. "With your automobile, it’s parked right there, you know where it is at all times, if you need to run out and go somewhere, you can do that. But when you make the choice to be a transit rider, you say, 'I'm going to give this power over to the agency.'"
In other words, you give up a lot of control.
The psychology of how we experience time in these situations is fascinating. Research from all kinds of settings – including the doctor's office and the grocery store – suggests that people routinely think they've waited twice as long for some outcome as they actually have. Waits feel particularly long when we're not doing much in the meantime, when we're already feeling anxious, and when the time horizon itself is uncertain. Tell someone, for instance, that "the doctor will see you in 15 minutes," and those 15 minutes pass more easily than if we had no idea how long to expect to wait.
Innovators have tried to solve the waiting problem (or the waiting perception problem) in many contexts. This is why dentists deploy fish tanks, and why elevators have mirrors (we like to preen), and why the hostess at many restaurants will intentionally overestimate your wait (you're delighted when it turns out to be shorter). But the stakes are particularly high with transit, because the alternative – taking the car – requires no wait at all.
When Watkins was working on her dissertation at the University of Washington, she and several researchers actually watched people wait for the bus. They timed how long riders spent at several bus stops, then approached to ask them for their own estimates. Many transit users felt like they had been waiting about 50 percent longer than they actually had.
In that particular study, though, there was one group of riders who didn't have this problem.
While they were at the University of Washington in 2008, Watkins and Brian Ferris developed the transit-tracking app OneBusAway, which provides real-time arrival information for buses and trains in Seattle, New York, Atlanta, and Tampa. Its first users were in the Seattle area, and Watkins and Ferris found in their visits that people who relied on the app were much more accurate in estimating how long they had to wait for the bus. For them, perceived time and actual time were one and the same.
In their earliest research on the impact of such mobile tools, Watkins and Ferris identified two other implications that have grown increasingly relevant as apps like this have become more ubiquitous: Riders who used OneBusAway not only perceived that their waits were shorter, they actually waited for less time, too, because the app enabled them to plan their travel better. Why head out for the bus right now, if you know it won't come for another seven minutes?
What's more: In surveys of these early OneBusAway users, 92 percent of them reported that they were more satisfied with public transit as a result of using the app (shown at right). And the regional transit agency, King County Metro, didn't have to reduce fares or invest in new buses or even increase service frequency to get it.
In fact, their results (Watkins has now extended this research to other cities) suggest that transit agencies might get a better payoff by telling people when buses will arrive than by making them arrive more often.
"We’d rather have real-time [data] than more frequent service," Watkins says.
In an era when transit agencies are strapped for cash, this means they could provide better service without literally providing better service. This also means that they could significantly improve their product by focusing not on the experience of riding the bus (or train), but by thinking more about what happens before we even board it.
"The period of time when you’re not yet on the vehicle is totally out of your control," Watkins says. "And there's a big psychological effect to that that makes it really difficult for people to say, 'I’m going to be a transit rider.'"
The idea of giving up control is part of mass transit's allure. It means we get to read a book during the morning commute while someone else – a trained professional – navigates traffic for us. But that lack of control feels very different when we're standing on that street corner in the rain, already late, wondering where on earth the bus is. The power of these apps is that they restore that control when we need it most, and in a way that levels some of the playing field with cars.
The question now is whether, by increasing satisfaction with transit, apps like OneBusAway can increase ridership, too. Watkins strongly suspects that this is the case. She listened to a lot of people at bus stops in Seattle suggest as much, that they'd left their cars at home when OneBusAway made transit seem more reliable. The next challenge will be proving this on a much larger scale.