There are good transit systems and there are great transit systems. What are the factors that make a transit system great? What do the top transit systems have in common? While the best transit systems are typically operating in dense, urban centres, they can still offer lessons to transit authorities in less populated, suburban areas. This article will present six foundational components to a great public transit system that can be applied anywhere.
Multi-modal transit choices are a fundamental component to a great system. Offering a variety of modes of transportation—from bus and train to bike, car-share and taxi—is an ideal way to meet the needs of riders and boost ridership. With a variety of apps that can integrate both public and private transit offerings, and even book and pay for services, multi-modal is the future of effective, convenient transit. Going multi-modal also doesn’t have to increase overall cost that significantly: suburban areas all over the U.S. are partnering with private ride-hailing services, like Uber and Lyft, as a way to provide last mile transit at a reduced cost, increasing overall transit usage.
Putting information in the hands of riders is a sure way to improve rider experience and increase ridership. Waiting for a bus or train that has an uncertain arrival time makes the wait feel much longer and prevents people from planning their journeys. A passenger information system that displays arrival times—updated in real-time—can go a long way to making waits feel shorter and encourage more customers to trust the transit system. While providing information at transit stations is important, making real-time information available through a sophisticated app improves the user experience and allows travelers to plan ahead.
No one wants to stand on the side of the road for 30 minutes waiting for a bus. Frequency is one of the the most important factors of a great transit system, and has a direct correlation with route efficiency and ridership. In a survey of 3,000 individuals in 17 metropolitan areas, frequency emerged as one of the most important factors for transit satisfaction. Simply increasing frequency is a very effective way of improving service and making customers happy. The ability to do this is obviously highly dependent on available budget, but as mentioned above, multi-modal solutions and partnerships with ride-hailing services can help increase options when frequency is a problem.
Frequent transit means nothing if a string of buses get caught in traffic. A good transit system is both fast and frequent. One way to achieve this is to beat congestion by creating dedicated bus lanes. Dedicated bus lanes can double, even triple bus speeds and move more than four times as many passengers per hour than regular-lane traffic. The faster and more reliable a transit system, the more people will use it.
Transit is often seen as nothing more than an unpleasant but necessary part of a daily routine. This does not have to be the case. Some agencies are looking into gamifying transit to energize ridership. There are many different ways to do this. TriMet in Portland, Oregon, created a digital scavenger hunt around transit stations on its new Orange Line in 2015. Participants who downloaded the TriMet ticket app could participate in the scavenger hunt and win prizes. Montréal used a similar approach: the city’s STMMerci app tracked users’ transit usage and offered discounts on products based on their common travel areas.
Comfort is an often-overlooked foundational component of great public transit. Transit needs to be convenient and accessible for all users. In a McKinsey survey of transit users, the top ten systems rated for comfort were fully wheelchair accessible. General comfort and cleanliness are also important: one study found that comfort (seat quality, ceiling height, leg room) was one of the most important factors in transit service satisfaction.
The best public transit systems in the world share many of these six foundational components. Of course, overhauling a transit system isn’t easy, and financial realities so often dictate what can be done. However, it is worth keeping these six factors in mind. Thanks to innovations like transport apps and ride-hailing services, the industry is changing, and transit agencies have no option but to adapt.
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Image: Shutterstock / Alexandros Michailidis