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Riding public transportation becomes an easier choice when cities provide better data

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Changing behavior isn’t just about cost or convenience—the way we make transportation decisions is irrational


In most places in the U.S., transit ridership has dipped in recent years, even as cities invest in massive expansions of their rail and bus systems. While transportation planners attempt to address the situation, one factor will make their jobs harder: Choosing or forgoing public transit isn't always a rational decision.

That’s according a new report out today by Conduent (the former business process services arm of Xerox that split from the company earlier this year) which surveyed urban-dwelling transportation users in 23 cities across 15 countries, hoping to learn what makes people embrace public transit over other modes of travel.

“Providing more choices in line with our personal situations is key to changing behavior,” says Don Hubicki, executive vice president at Conduent. “People primarily focus on their individual situation, factoring in speed, comfort and cost when determining how they’d like to travel.”

But as the report shows, besides just offering options, cities need to provide incentives for modes that are better for the environment, their health, and fellow citizens, giving people good reasons to switch. Otherwise people will just stick with what they know.

Just how irrational are humans when it comes to transit? When asked how they preferred to get around, people surveyed for the study overwhelmingly said they liked driving their own car, specifically citing benefits like comfort and reliability. But driving was also cited as the mode most likely to experience delays: 70 percent of respondents said driving made them late at least once a month—higher than any other mode of transit. In comparison, only 61 percent of regular bus riders said their mode made them late.

So why do drivers believe they’re more delayed than bus riders? It’s because of situational thinking, the difference between our expectations and reality, says Scott Silence, chief innovation officer at Conduent. When you choose to drive you expect to have total control, but when you ride the bus you’ve factored in the potential for disruptions. The disparity between what you expect and what you experience is what ultimately causes stress and frustration.

But if you have better information, like knowing ahead of time about a delay on your driving route or seeing when your bus will arrive in real-time, you adjust your expectations. “If there’s one big challenge for city planners today it’s removing that situational factor,” says Silence. “It’s the key to changing behavior and making people think more agnostically.”

The Go LA app helps travelers plan routes based on their cost, convenience, and emissions.

This idea is something that transit agencies have chased for decades as they’ve tried to convince riders to choose the mode that’s best for their particular trip, regardless of bias. But as the report illustrates, people cling to the mode they’re used to, even if they know another option might be better. And, apparently, even if they know their option is going to be frustrating!

That doesn’t mean that transit agencies shouldn’t step it up, however. Seventy percent of people said they’d use transit more if it was faster, which is why so many cities are revamping their bus service in particular to add more frequency. But maybe it’s also more about presenting existing information in a way that helps manage expectations.

Transit riders are more likely than drivers to use trip-planning tools, with 77 percent using apps to plan their journeys. This might make transit riders automatically feel happier and more relaxed about their commutes overall. Riders also seem to have confidence that these apps will evolve to serve them even better. In fact, half of the people surveyed believed they’d use one app to summon and pay for all transit by 2020, similar to the way that Helsinki has rolled out its Whim system.

Conduent is halfway there, designing trip-planning apps for cities like Los Angeles and Denver, which list all transportation options rated across metrics of faster, cheaper, greener. The plan is for those apps to start accepting fare payments in the app, and even being able to locate and pre-pay for things like parking, so travelers can see the true time and cost of their journeys. When driving directions to your destination include 25 extra minutes of looking for a spot and $25 extra to park, it might provide the right incentive to leave the car at home.