Why Do People Quit Riding Transit? It’s the On-Board Delays, Stupid

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley are zeroing in on what irks transit riders so much they stop riding.

Transit riders hate delays while they're on board most of all. Image: ##http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2013/03/06/top-eight-reasons-people-give-up-on-public-transit/##Forbes via Wikipedia##

The research team — Andre Carrel, Anne Halvorsen and Joan L. Walker — surveyed people in the San Francisco Bay Area to find out what frustrated them the most about riding transit. While the general results of their study are what you’d expect — delays, crowding, and unreliability were top complaints — there are some interesting nuances when you drill down into the specifics.

Above all, they found, transit riders really don’t like to wait in the middle of a trip. These were far and away the top sources of rider dissatisfaction:

1. Delayed on board due to transit vehicles backed up or problems on the transit route downstream.

2. Experienced long wait at a transfer stop.

Carrel told the Canadian Broadcasting Company Corporation why the location of the delay makes a big difference to passengers. “Waiting at the origin stop where you first get on, having a delay there is not as important as having a delay at the transfer stop,” he said. “You might be able to wait at home until the bus is close if you have the information and you might also have alternatives. If the bus doesn’t show up, you could take your car to your bike.”

“But if you get stuck at a transfer stop, you get off one bus and the other bus just doesn’t show up, you’re pretty screwed over,” Carrel added. “We found that that was actually much worse.”

Worse than that though, is when people are stuck inside a crowded bus or train. “That is by far the most important event in making people stop using transit,” Carrel said. The researchers added that transit passengers were much more likely to forgive delays caused by weather and other external factors than those attributable to the transit agency.

Carrel, Halvorsen, and Walker said there are some clear lessons for transit providers here.

“Passengers may prefer more frequent service with occasional crowding to less frequent buses that are larger and less crowded,” they write.

They also recommend that transit operators tell passengers whether a delay is caused by weather emergencies or other problems that are outside the agency’s control.

The other major sources of aggravation? The research team found eight total items that most irritated current and former transit riders. The remaining six were several degrees less important to riders than the previous two:

3. Missed departure due to wrong real-time information.

4. Unable to board or denied boarding due to crowding.

5. Delayed on board due to emergency or mechanical failure.

6. Experienced long wait at origin stop.

7. Ran to stop but the bus or train pulled away.

8. Delayed on board due to traffic.

  • Anonymous

    Yep – my #1 beef: Delay at transfer, which can double my trip time from 1 hour door to door, to 2 hours door to door. I can drive the same distance during peak in 30 minutes or less.

    The problem is poor planning and investing: always road improvements, not building a transit network. Also, too much emphasis on travel time and not enough on reliability.

    Rather than build a new hot lane, extend existing rail service. Doing that for my trip would eliminate the troublesome transfer and yield huge reliability improvements (and time savings, to boot).

  • Joe R.

    Missed connections are especially frustrating if just as you’re arriving, you see your connecting bus or train leaving. I understand that vehicles can’t wait an arbitrary amount of time to facilitate connections, but certainly if the driver of one vehicle sees the other one pulling in, he/she can hold it there an extra minute to allow connecting passengers to board.

    I think keeping passengers informed of the reasons for delays en route is important. People can tolerate much longer delays if they see there’s a good reason for it.

    A third pet peeve of mine is excessive slack in the schedule. For example, if a bus company runs day time schedules at night when there’s less traffic, it will be pretty obvious the bus driver will be going much slower than they can just to avoid being ahead of schedule. Why not just revise the schedules at night to account for the lower traffic levels? Same thing with rail. In fact, with rail there really isn’t much excuse to not run schedules which are pretty close to the minimum possible running time. After all, the guideway is usually completely under the control of the transit agency. You might need to have a little slack to account for days with higher than normal numbers of passengers, but in any case this shouldn’t be more than maybe 5% or 10% over minimum possible running time. 

  • Stewart Clamen

    That’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, btw

    Yours in

  • On the Manhattan-bound N/D trains  leaving Atlantic, there is a 2-5 minute delay nine times out of ten.  I never understood why they don’t hold the train at the station if they know with near certainty that it’s going to get delayed in the tunnel (other than antiquated signalling systems).

  • voltairesmistress

    YES.  I stopped riding San Francisco Muni on a regular, monthly pass basis due to #1 and #2.  I still ride the regional subway system and ferries and train because they are fast and reliable.  Will use of them more once they set up bike share at all stations to get that last mile.

  • Guest

    my favorite is when muni drivers stop to chat with supervisors/etc for a minute or three. best is when they do it at the switch just before 4th and king, to maximize your chance of missing caltrain. (i used to get off at 2nd and jog if i was late, you’d beat the N some chunk of the time.)

  • Cabin Johnnie

    RideOn (Montgomery County MD) buses are often 7-8 min. early or late, which means a 15 min. window to catch a bus.  I can ride my bike to the Metro in 20 min., so why bother?

    I understand the occasional hangup, like taking a long time to help riders with special needs.  But I also see drivers starting their route 2-3 minutes early, or racing to the end, and blatantly ignoring people waiting at bus stops.

    Though “fixed” a few weeks ago, public timetable data files hadn’t been updated in over 2 years.  So all the times in Google Maps, etc., were wrong.  Timetables themselves are adjusted every few months, but apparently someone forgets to upload the new data files.  And it still doesn’t work with smartphone apps like NextBus.

    Finally, while there’s a “next bus” number to call at every stop, it goes to the general county phone tree.  So you have to wade through that, maybe only to be told to call back during business hours.

    Is this really 2013?  

    There’s no excuse for any of this.  RideOn just needs to get their act together. 

  • Keith

    The reason I stopped taking the bus is the RTA in Cleveland has decided that all busses must go downtown, so the only place you can transfer is downtown, even if it means going miles out of the way. I still occasionally take the bus when the weather is bad, but it takes me an hour and a half to go 13 miles where driving on the freeway takes 20 minutes and if the weather is ok like today I can do it in 45 minutes on a bike.

  • Why is it that transit agencies don’t understand the concept of frequent headways? It’s seriously like, the ONE thing they can do that will solve a whole host of other associated problems (overcrowding, missed transfers, impulse trips, etc.)

  • Anonymous

    Public policy, project development and evaluation processes, and funding mechanisms are all geared to keeping transit non-competitive with the automobile. As long as there remains a significant structural bias in favor of road-oriented solutions to urban mobility and accessibility problems we will keep doing what we’ve been doing and keep getting what we’ve been getting. We’re continuing to produce VHS tapes long after the market has switched to DVD and Blue Ray.

  • Pleasant, reliable, frequent, safe, and no more than 30% slower than driving. If we want people to take transit, these must be delivered. I live in San Francisco where there is an extensive (for the US) transit system. Except for a couple destinations, I almost always ride my bike because even if MUNI is working without glitches, biking is faster (if a transfer is involved, often twice as fast) and cheaper. And more pleasant. And more reliable. The only time I’m tempted to take MUNI is when it’s raining, when I’m going somewhere with a friend who’s terrified of biking riding in the city, or when the area of my destination is dicey and I have no secure area to park my bike (and it’s night, and I need to leave it for a couple hours.)

    It drives me crazy on the bus when I am a block from my destination (point of transfer to the underground system) and it’s time for a driver change. *And they don’t tell you.* We all just sit there with no explanation, not knowing if the bus is going to start any second. If the driver just said, “I’m waiting for the next driver,” everyone would get off and walk the last block. Also infuriating is when no bus comes for 20, 30 , 40 minutes (!) and then three arrive in a line, the first packed to the gills, the second two empty. That has happened less often the past two years, but two buses in a row still occurs. Also annoying is how much the frequency backs off in the evening, even Friday and Saturdays. You can get somewhere with reasonable speed, but coming home at 10:30 pm can require a 15 min wait on the underground, then a jam-packed train, then a 20 min wait for a bus. (Or, inevitably, I give up and walk the last 15 minutes home up hill.) All this for a 2.1 mile trip.

    I also think the issues of a pleasant and safe ride are important. Parents are not going to let their children, preteens, teens ride if they think their children might be 1) kidnapped, or 2) mugged or accosted in any way. In general parents are far more worried about this than they should be, in general it’s not that hard for kids to learn measures and street smarts to keep them safe, but even a single well-publicized incident can frighten parents from letting their children take transit. (In US cities, parents driving their children to school can be 30% of morning traffic.) In terms of a pleasant ride, the bus/train/waiting area needs to not be grimy, filthy, smell of vomit, trash on the seats, spilled soda pop making the floor sticky. There must be no one yelling, screaming profanities, or even singing at their top of their lungs. (Personally I am okay with muttering or even entire conversations with pretend people as long as it’s not loud. And I like most street musicians, especially if they play the cello.) And the buses/trains need to not require being smushed like a sardine in order to ride them.

    Last summer I was amazed at Vienna’s underground system. Even when transferring between lines, we never waited more than 3 minutes for a train. Often it was only 1 or 2 minutes. The trains were long and full of people (though not uncomfortably so), even at midday. People really use transit there. Of course, Vienna has made it nearly impossible to drive within or to the inner historic core of the city, but has provided excellent transit as a substitute.

    For long distances, I do take BART or Caltrain, sometimes combining them with bike travel at either end. I, too, am looking forward to bikeshare to make this easier. I would also appreciate completely secure bike parking at BART that doesn’t require me to carry my bike up and down 40 stairs, and secure bike parking at Caltrain on weekends. (I would gladly pay for such a service!)

  • Wanderer

    @Metro Derp: Transit agencies understand the concept of frequent headways very well. The problem is with politicians and passengers (or ostensible passengers) on infrequent routes. For years now the conventional wisdom in the transit industry is that frequency is key, that transit should concentrate on providing frequent service on high ridership corridors. LA Metro (for whom I do not work) recognizes this by published its 15 minutes or less map, showing all the lines that run every 15 minutes or mo@twitter-574513900:disqus re often. More frequent service also makes it more reasonable to transfer and not have to wait too long.

    But transit agencies have fixed (or worse) pools of operating funds. More frequent service on the boulevard often means less frequent service, or even elimination of service, somewhere else. Proposing to make these changes typically elicits yowls of protest. Ridership can be minimal, but hearings will be packed with people whose lives will be ruined with any dimunition of service. It is not unknown fo more people to show up protesting the elimination of a line than there are passengers on the line. Politicians often berate transit agencies for making these changes.

    People who want more frequent service need to stand up for frequent service proposals when transit agencies make them.

  • I live in an area that has poor transit with poor choices for other modes of travel other than a car. I usually get forced to use transit 3 or 4 times a month because I have to cross an especially hostile area on my bike, or when I’m traveling with my bike-phobic wife (after I was hit she refused to even sit on a bike).  If I don’t have really dangerous areas to go through I can usually get there faster on my bike than by transit because I only ride a little bit slower average speed than the bus, plus I can ride my bike on my schedule and (sometimes) the most direct route.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

The “Choice” vs. “Captive” Transit Rider Dichotomy Is All Wrong

|
The conventional wisdom about transit often divides riders into two neat categories: “choice” riders — higher-income people with cars — and “captive” riders — lower-income people who must use transit because they don’t own cars. But this framework can undermine good transit, according to a new report from TransitCenter [PDF]. In the attempt to cater only to “choice” riders or “captive” […]

Advocates: Mobilizing Transit Riders a Challenge, Even in Transit-Rich Cities

|
With fewer Americans driving and transit ridership breaking records, you might think transit has plenty of muscle behind it. But while the numbers speak for themselves, the riders often don’t. That’s why local efforts to establish grassroots transit advocacy organizations are so important, said a panel of experts convened by the Center for Transportation Excellence this Wednesday. […]