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.

Transit riders are more conscious of time than they are of features like wifi. Drawing via Transit Center
Transit riders are more conscious of time than they are of features like Wi-Fi. Graphic: TransitCenter

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” riders, public officials often make decisions that don’t accomplish what everyone wants from transit — fast, frequent, reliable service that takes them where they want to go.

TransitCenter surveyed more than 3,000 transit riders across 17 regions — and conducted focus groups in three major cities — to get a better picture of why people take transit. The responses were combined with data from All Transit, a tool that assesses the quality of transit service in different locations, to inform the report’s conclusions.

While having access to a car does influence how much people use transit, other factors are more important. In walkable neighborhoods with frequent transit service, people with and without cars both ride transit more than people in areas with poor transit.

Far from being “captive,” transit riders without cars are in fact very sensitive to the quality of service. So-called “captive” riders have other choices available, like biking, taxis, and borrowing cars, and most do take advantage of them — almost two-thirds of car-free transit riders had done so in the last month.

A big problem with the “choice/captive” rider dichotomy, says lead report author Steven Higashide, is that it prompts planners to invest in “sexy” features aimed at luring “choice” riders out of cars — like Wi-Fi or comfortable seats. The notion of the “choice rider” has been used to justify mixed-traffic streetcar projects that operate slowly and don’t actually serve many people.

Regardless of whether transit riders own a car, what actually matters to them aren’t the bells and whistles, or even the type of vehicle, but the basics: service they can depend on to get places on time.

“Transit has to compete for every rider,” Higashide told Streetsblog. “There’s often this assumption that people without cars have no choice, have to ride transit. People are sensitive to transit quality regardless of car ownership.”

TransitCenter suggests another way to frame how and why people use transit — by looking at the types of trips they use it for:

  • “Occasional riders” only use transit for unusual trips.
  • “Commuters” use it to travel to work but not for many other journeys.
  • “All-purpose riders” take transit to work, to do errands, and for a variety of trips.
The better a city's transit system, the more "all-purpose" riders who use the system for all kinds of trips. Graph: Transit Center
The better a city’s transit system, the more “all-purpose” riders who use the system for all kinds of trips. Chart: TransitCenter

In Tucson, for example, only two percent of households have a member who commutes regularly by transit. But in 20 percent of households, at least one person occasionally uses transit for some reason. This gap illustrates the potential for ridership growth if transit better serves people’s everyday needs.

Meanwhile, all-purpose riders make the majority of transit trips (about 55 percent), despite accounting for a smaller share of the transit-riding public (32 percent). When transit systems have a higher share of all-purpose riders, that’s a sign that their service is useful for the full spectrum of trips people want to make.

So how can cities make transit so appealing that occasional riders or commuters become “all-purpose” riders? TransitCenter says there are three important factors.

1. Walkability

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.58.02 PM
Graphic: TransitCenter

All-purpose transit riders are the most likely to walk to transit — about 80 percent do so compared to 57 percent of commuters. That means cities and transit agencies need to identify obstacles to walkability around stations and fix them. TransitCenter cites Evanston, Illinois, and Arlington, Virginia, as two cities that have made strides to improve walkability near transit.

Transit agencies should also seek to concentrate service in walkable areas. After Sound Transit extended University Link in Seattle three miles, for instance, daily boardings increased from 35,000 to 57,000. In contrast, projects that don’t serve clusters of destinations (like Atlanta’s streetcar, half of which is in a relatively undeveloped area) or don’t have good pedestrian connections to stations (like the DC Metro Silver Line expansion in Tyson’s Corner), tend to fall short of ridership expectations.

2. Frequent Service

When transit riders were asked which type of service improvement they value most, increased frequency rated second. Among transit riders who were satisfied with their local transit service, 81 percent gave the system high marks for service frequency. Meanwhile, among those who were unsatisfied, just 32 percent said the same.

“People felt very viscerally how low frequencies impacted them if they miss a transfer,” said Higashide.

This finding suggests transit agencies should focus resources on providing frequent service to walkable corridors, rather than trying to spread service thinly over a wider area. Houston recently redesigned its bus system to create a network of frequent service, and the early results are encouraging.

3. On-Board Travel Time

Not surprisingly, getting places quicker once on board is the service improvement riders want most.

“The fundamentals of travel time and frequency are priorities across the income spectrum,” said Higashide.

To improve travel speed, TransitCenter recommends a few strategies. Transit agencies and city officials can speed up buses with prepaid fare payment, dedicated bus lanes, signal priority at intersections, and consolidating stops.

  • number 2, number 2, number 2! I rarely take public transit because trips of any length require a transfer, and that slows everything down. I can drive to work in 10-15 minutes, but I can’t get there on transit in less than 35 minutes, 20 minutes of which is waiting for a transfer.

  • David Rosenberg

    Great article. This is why I voted for the millage tax to improve bus service in the Ann Arbor area. I recently used the bus service to get to the car repair shop when my car was having work done, I thought it was a good transit experience.

  • Kevin Love

    “…lower-income people who must use transit because they don’t own cars.”

    Someone does not live in NYC. Or anywhere else where the highways are so crammed during peak periods that taking the train is vastly faster than driving a car.

  • rogue

    Amazing, it’s like classical psychological projection. Higher income “choice” drivers vs. low-income “captive” drivers is a real thing when you don’t have public transit or biking or walking alternatives.

  • ohnonononono

    This is the “USA” Streetsblog. The vast majority of Americans live and work where it’s much, much easier to drive than it is to take the train (or, in these cases, bus). Even in the NYC metro area, most people live and work in the burbs and don’t have adequate transit options.

    A significant number of American households who don’t have cars actually rely on friends and family to give them rides instead of taking transit, biking, or walking, because most of this country has such poor transit, biking, and walking facilities.

  • Joe Linton

    I like Jarrett Walker’s takedown of Choice/Captive false dichotomy at about 0:27 here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swcMC1Talk0 – he urges transit agencies to “focus on the middle 90% instead”

  • effron

    The Expo Line in Los Angeles manages to thread the needle very well. On one hand it caters to “choice” weathy, otherwise car driving, riders by running through affluent neighborhoods, which in turn promotes development catering to more of the same while on the other hand riders are held “captive” to over-crowded trains, prone to daily breakdown and delays and is subject to traffic lights. It’s a win-win actually.

  • Buttermilk

    This, of course, is not what captive rider means. But you knew that.

  • effron

    Yes but the sorry truths of the line are just that.

  • Dave Campbell

    I recall Motorola ones asking if cell phone users for the Wi-Fi. Is Motorola still around?

  • hcat

    For us very occasional riders, the “exact change” thing is a major barrier to using buses, which are often more convenient than rail. So we stick to the rail.
    LA’s Expo Line has to stop at street lights; so sometimes Google says there’s a bus line that’s faster!

  • hcat

    Google sometimes says there’s a bus paralleling the Expo that’s faster than the Expo! Aaugh.

  • 4. Quality of the Ride. Yes 1-3 absolutely matter, but they are not mutually exclusive of ride quality. A smooth ride on fixed-guideway, the availability and comfort of seats, wifi, and other amenities do draw millions of transit riders across the world to high quality services like fixed guideway vehicles and ferries. These riders reject crowded, frequent bus service because that service is uncomfortable (as are overcrowded trains). I wish transit planners would acknowledge that both abundance of service and quality of service matter, instead of this constant narrative that only abundance of service matters. We can all have 1-4 if we fund transit with per-mile/km fees on cars. I’ve written an article about this at https://rescapes.net/the_amtrak_standard.

  • davistrain

    I looked in my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and “walkable” isn’t in there. It does include the Australian term “walkabout”. Do I need a new dictionary, or is “walkable” something found in an “urbanist” glossary? Getting back to the “choice” vs. “captive” dichotomy, From time to time, one sees a story in the local media about a poor person, usually a single mother, who has to take three buses to get to her menial job. Some kind soul gives her an old car and life becomes much simpler–at least until the car needs expensive repairs.

  • RGD

    HAHA! Most people in the NYC metro area have options good enough to commute into the city, so that IS WHAT THEY DO. There are no seats, standing room is tight, rush hour is long, trains are sometimes late, and stations are sometimes small and don’t get that much service throughout rush hour. But it is so much better than fighting NYC’s incredible traffic that no one thinks twice about it. You’d be crazy NOT to take the train, unless your commute does not come close to fitting into standard commuting patterns. I’m sure what you say about rides is, to some extent, true, but if you take a bike out a few times into an environment that is hostile, it only takes a few times for the fear to go away.

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