The 3 Essential Ingredients for Cooking Up Transit That People Want to Ride

Photo: Stefanie Seskin/Flickr
Photo: Stefanie Seskin/Flickr

With so much transportation funding going toward highways, it’s tempting to support any transit investment as a step in the right direction. But not all transit investments will produce service that helps people get where they need to go. To make transit a useful travel option that people want to ride, says TransitCenter, there are three basic goals that officials and advocates should strive for.

Think of it as a recipe for a delicious transit cake. Every cake is different, but they all share some key ingredients. For transit, the three ingredients that make it work are speed, frequency and reliability, and walkability and accessibility.

The method of preparing each ingredient may vary, but it’s always important for transit service to include all three. Here’s how TransitCenter breaks down the recipe [PDF]:

Speed. Routes should be direct, instead of cutting labyrinthine paths across a city. Fare payment needs to be fast and easy, via off-board fare collection or tap-and-go entry at every door. Transit can’t get bogged down in traffic, either, so features like dedicated space on the street and priority at traffic lights are needed to keep things moving.

Frequency and Reliability. People won’t ride transit if they can’t depend on it. A network of routes that arrive at least every 15 minutes helps people know that a bus or train will be there when they need it, and gives them multiple route options in case there’s a problem with one. Accurate, real-time data published in app-friendly formats allows riders to get the information they need where and when they want it. And properly-managed dispatching can use this real-time data to keep transit evenly spaced, so riders won’t have long, unpredictable waits.

Walkability and Accessibility. Transit works best when people can walk to it. That means both concentrating transit in compact, walkable places, and making it easier to walk to transit in places where pedestrian infrastructure is lacking. That could entail adding bus shelters, painting crosswalks, and expanding pedestrian space in the short term, and lifting restrictions on new development near transit in the long term.

Keeping these three goals in mind can help keep everyone’s eye on the ball when thinking about transit. In this framework, questions don’t turn on the specific mode of travel but on how to make any given route more useful. A commuter rail line from the suburbs to downtown might have speed, for instance but lack frequency and walkability. Buses or streetcars that operate in mixed-traffic might be frequent or easy to walk to, but will probably struggle to attain acceptable speed and reliability.

Hitting all three marks is the key to creating “all-purpose” transit — a service that people use not just for occasional trips or commuting, but for all types of trips, all the time.

33 thoughts on The 3 Essential Ingredients for Cooking Up Transit That People Want to Ride

  1. “Transit can’t get bogged down in traffic, either, so features like dedicated space on the street and priority at traffic lights are needed to keep things moving.”

    You want to get people to take the bus? Grade separation, at least at major intersections.

    And stations, out of the elements.

  2. I disagree. Grade separation has all sorts of other costs (diminished walkability, and greatly increased costs), and i don’t think it’s necessary in most places.

  3. These seem so simple, but maybe that’s why they need to get restated all the time… I’d place this all under the banner of “Enticing and non-discouraging.”

  4. Assuming you have easy to use off board or tap payment and the zones/distance charges are accessible and understanding able to everyone, definitely yes. Not sure anywhere in the US fits the first criteria.

  5. Factors for the infrequent transit user: I was in NYC and Google said the fastest way to the Upper West Side was a bus. And lo, the bus didn’t accept dollar bills! So I went to the nearest subway station to buy a two ride Metro Card. From machines that actually Make Change. A serious issue for the very infrequent rider. By that time it was quicker to take the subway.
    Going back I could use my Metro Card to get on the bus. But the bus didn’t get there when it was supposed to. It got there about a minute before the one after it! I’ve heard that in London buses tend to show up in groups of three rather than being equally dispersed through time. And you wonder why middle class people and above tend to stick to rail transit!

  6. I don’t know if we can get rid of Exact Change, but if everyone could look up the exact price of the ride before they go, and what forms of currency are acceptable (in NYC, $2.75, quarters only!) it would help.

  7. There are systems across the world that are cashless. You just have to provide ticket/card terminals around that do accept cash.

  8. It would be good if the fare card also worked in parking meters. Then someone who one day decides to take the bus might already have what they need.

  9. Hmmm… they seem to have left out ‘not getting robbed’, ‘not being beaten’ and ‘not having to deal with ‘crazy and/or aggressive people’.

  10. I’d add a fourth: Safety. I am more likely to ride transit–and choose my route, when possible–based on when vehicles and stops give me a sense of safety rather than exposure.

  11. I’ve found that higher quality transit tends to be filled with higher quality people. So this problem will solve itself when transit agencies follow the above advice.

  12. I dont know how most parts of asia get such wide acceptance, but virtually anywhere that accepts money seems to sell/charge metro-card. Convenience stores, gas stations, some short order restaurants. In many cities you can also use your metro-card balance on items beyond just bus/subway fare.

  13. If the ‘quality of the people’ is the problem, that is really a city by city or a whole country issue; not a transit issue.

  14. Except that half of the people in any city or country are lower quality than the other half, statistically speaking, no matter the criteria.

  15. Yes but ultimately you can’t expect transit to somehow change the population there.

    LA’s transit system would work so much better if it was riden entirely by Japanese people. There would be no litter, everyone would que in an orderly fashion, there would be no homeless people, fare evasion would be 0%.

    Replacing the entire population of Los Angeles with Japanese people isn’t a feasible solution. Nor should LA’s transit system be considered a failure because LA is full of Angelenos.

    “The problem with France is that it is full of French”

  16. Why can’t you expect the ratio of ordinary people taking transit to increase if you improve its quality?

  17. At least sometimes no grade separation has to be regarded as a feature. There isn’t anything more accessible than stepping off a curb, except maybe being able to roll off the curb, into your vehicle. A rapid transit line is much faster than a bus or tram, but the descent or ascent to the station eats time even for the able bodied and physically fit.

  18. Get a critical mass of ridership and it largely sorts itself out. No different than it being preferable to walk along streets busy with foot traffic than in dark alleys at nighttime.

  19. No. You will get a broader mix of the population using transit if the service is better.

  20. You would need no onboard cash payment and all-door tap when boarding and exiting. That works for Caltrain, but could slow down buses with more frequent stops.

  21. Buses do tend to bunch up in threes – if a bus gets a little bit late, then every time it reaches a stop, there’s a few extra people waiting there, so it gets delayed a little bit more. If a bus gets a little bit early, then every time it reaches a stop there’s fewer people waiting there, so it gains a bit more time.

    To avoid bunching in twos and threes, you really need to get good reliability (so more dedicated lanes) and also either good frequency or a bit of schedule padding. And rail usually has this, because people don’t consider rail acceptable if it doesn’t have its own right of way and good frequency. Buses could have the same advantages, but they’re often considered worth setting up without it.

  22. Why do lists like this never include affordability? Or safety? These are real concerns among those of us who are forced to depend on public transportation.

  23. If dealing with crazy people is a concern, I would advise avoiding streets where people drive.
    These people can’t possibly have a license!

  24. New Jersey Transit buses have zone fares with no exit checks, but my impression is that enforcement of the zones is basically nil. If it is possible to ride a bus within one zone, and you pay a one-zone fare, it’s unlikely that you’ll be challenged if you ride into a second zone.

    That said, my experience riding NJT buses is pretty limited, so perhaps there are spot checks that I’ve never encountered.

  25. All coins are valid on NYC buses, except half dollars and maybe pennies. No bills, however. (But most riders use MetroCards, which provide fare discounts and free transfers to the subway.)

  26. Legal tender is defined as “money that is legally valid for the payment of debts and that must be accepted for that purpose when offered.” If payment is required at the beginning of the ride, as on New York City buses, no debt is incurred and the concept of legal tender does not apply.

    There is no requirement that any form of currency be accepted to pay a transit fare up front. Bus systems that accept cash payments (not all do) often require exact change, both for security reasons and to keep bus service moving, and may place restrictions on the exact forms of currency based on the constraints of the fare collection system (in New York’s case, the fareboxes are emptied by a vacuum system that would shred bills). Rapid transit systems (subway/metro systems) typically require some sort of fare medium to be purchased in advance, with cash not accepted on board at all.

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