from Who's On Board 2016 published by Transit Center
Who’s On Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works, published by Transit Center
Who’s On Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works, published by Transit Center

A study by transportation think-tank Transit Center has taken a closer look at who’s using public transit in the US, in hopes of taking away lessons on how to get more people on board. The report, Who’s On Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works, found that in addition to speed and frequency of transit service, our ability to walk (or roll) to transit stops is a major factor in how much we ride.

Lead report author Steve Higashide and his team surveyed 3,000 transit riders across the US, and conducted focus groups with riders in three cities.

Not surprisingly, the report found that travel time and frequency were the “two most important factors driving satisfaction with transit.” Not only was ridership greater in areas with speedy, frequent service, but when asked, people placed a high value on them.

This is not news to us in Halifax, where transit advocates It’s More Than Buses have been vociferously promoting “fast, frequent transit” for the past five years, and where we recently approved a new transit plan aimed at increasing our high ridership services.

But Higashide’s report adds a third key factor to increased ridership, one that is not talked about nearly often enough in terms of transit: walkability.

Higashide’s report finds a clear connection between the ability to walk to a transit stop and how often people use transit. The most frequent transit users walk to their stops 80 per cent of the time.

Though transit planners have long ached over the “first mile, last mile” problem, these findings seem to indicate the answer: eliminate the first and last mile by putting transit within walking distance of where people live and work.

Policymakers can grow all-purpose transit ridership by enabling more people to walk to useful transit. To expand transit ridership, policymakers should:

  1. Concentrate development around transit corridors, and make the walk to transit safe, easy, and pleasant.
  2. Concentrate transit improvements in walkable places with large numbers of residents and destinations.
  3. Pay special attention to increasing frequency and reducing transit travel time.

The report recommends that we not only locate transit services in walkable communities, but also that we build mixed-use, walkable communities around existing transit services. Either way we do it, the two need to go together if we want cities where transit trumps personal vehicle use.

Another key lesson served up in Higashide’s report is the idea that we need to change how we talk about transit riders

The typical terminology of “captive” and “choice” riders is working against us, says Higashide:

Longstanding dogma has been that people without cars are “captive” to transit and will use it regardless of service quality, while car owners have “choice” and must be won over through better service and luxe amenities.

This binary way of categorizing transit riders has some unfortunate consequences. There is an implication that transit should focus on competing to win over people with cars, because everyone else will ride transit regardless of service quality.

Not only does the captive/choice way of thinking further disadvantage communities that are typically already disadvantaged, but according to Higashide, it’s not even accurate. “On that contrary, we find that the “captivity” of transit riders is severely overstated,” he says in the report.

Instead, Higashide defines three groups of riders according to how often they use transit: occasional riders, commuters, and all-purpose riders.

Occasional riders take transit once in a while (at least one day a month, but no more than once a week.) There’s a lot of them, but they don’t take very many trips. Commuters take transit to work at least two days a week, but rarely if ever take transit for other purposes. And finally, all-purpose transit riders catch a bus or train at least twice a week for a variety of purposes, from work to shopping to recreation.

Out of the three categories, all-purpose riders are estimated as taking the most trips.

Estimated trips by segment, from Who's On Board 2016, Transit Center
Estimated trips by segment, from Who’s On Board 2016, Transit Center
Estimated trips by segment, from Who’s On Board 2016, Transit Center

Higashide proposes that all-purpose riders are the ones transit agencies should be chasing, not only because they are taking the most trips, but also because they are the most efficient to serve.

All-purpose riders also tend to spread out their transit use throughout the day and week, making it more efficient to serve them. Commuters, on the other hand, tend to be the most costly to serve, as their demand is concentrated in such strict time periods, increasing the number of buses and drivers required in the system.

All-purpose riders are also the group with the strongest connection to walkability, with 80 per cent of them walking to their transit stops, with 57 per cent and 53 per cent for occasional riders and commuters respectively. Looked at another way, we have developed the most all-purpose riders in communities with walkable access to transit.  And the more frequently people tend to use transit, the more they tend to walk to access it.

"If someone can walk to transit, he or she is more likely to be a frequent transit rider." Who's On Board 2016, Transit Center
“If someone can walk to transit, he or she is more likely to be a frequent transit rider.” Who’s On Board 2016, Transit Center
“If someone can walk to transit, he or she is more likely to be a frequent transit rider.” Who’s On Board 2016, Transit Center

Of course, this is a broad-based US study, and should be read and understood as such, but there are lessons here that we should be considering applying in Halifax. Once the currently ongoing  NovaTRAC trip diary study is completed by DalTRAC, we will have comparable Halifax-specific information on the breakdown of our all-purpose, commuter, and occasional riders.

If you haven’t filled out your survey yet, get to it!  City planners (and curious journalists) are dying to know who’s on board in Halifax.

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  1. Halifax’s transit, at least in the core, is too walkable. Stops are spaced extremely close together. Transit planners tend to say that about 400m stop spacing is ideal for buses and 800m or so for higher order (rail or busway) services. Look at the 7’s stops on Novalea for a stark example of bunching. Every potential stop slows the bus down.
    It’s More Than Buses has been vocal on the stop spacing issue, but it’s not the tagline. And Halifax Transit’s original draft of Moving Forward Together aimed to have 80% of people in the Urban Transit Service Boundary within 400m of a bus stop.
    So yes: stop spacing matters for walkability and service quality, but Halifax has the odd problem of too much walkability.

    1. Agreed that we have some problems spots with stop spacing in the core, but I think it’s an oversimplification to say that Halifax’s transit is too walkable because of that. The Urban Transit Service Boundary is really huge, and we can certainly stand to incentivize residential and mixed use development near transit stops, and also to focus transit service in existing higher density areas within this boundary. Also, look at terminals like Mumford… That is far from “too walkable”. And as we mover to higher orders of transit, this is going to be even more important, because, as you point out, the stop distances are longer. So safe, pleasant, and direct AT access will be vital to the success of rail or BRT.

    2. Another great article Erica. For It’s More than Buses, our tagline is Fast, Frequent and Reliable (sometimes we add user-friendly). I think better stop spacing falls under ‘fast’ since wider stop spacing can really speed up transit. We will push wider stop spacing more vocally when implementation of Moving Forward starts. Stops can be consolidated at any time, but the route structure has to be right from the start.

      I think both points above are valid: stops are too close, and Moving Forward does very little to address this critical issue, but for many transit routes, walkability is poor, especially in areas like Fairview, near Mumford Terminal, in North End Darmouth. That’s not an exhaustive list of where walking to transit is difficult, but it’s a list of places with decent service, high demand and poor walkability.

  2. transit becomes more appealing when transit stops feel safe and free from smokers, panhandlers and sleeping street people, in addition to walkability.

    1. The bus terminal at the bridge terminal feels unsafe. Smokers, people smoking dope publicly, girls screaming at each other, stabbings, people bumming for money/food/cigarettes/bus tickets (pick one).

      None of that makes transit appealing.