Over the past decade, cities across the country have been fighting an uphill battle against 21st century transit issues, including expanding suburbs, shrinking budgets and encroaching environmental issues. In an effort to woo people out of their automobiles and onto public transportation, many transit agencies have invested in system upgrades such as sleek transit hubs and high-speed rail, often with lack luster results.
Now, a series of studies collectively shows that the biggest roadblocks facing increased ridership might occur before riders even step on the bus. Conducted by University of Maryland National Center for Smart Growth Research Associate Hiroyuki Iseki-in collaboration with UCLA researchers Alison Yoh, Michael Smart, and Brian Taylor-the report argues that "out of vehicle" factors have substantial influences in ridership satisfaction of transit services, and that certain lower-cost measures can make significant impacts on riders' perception. The research project was featured in the spring 2012 issue of the University of California Transportation Center's ACCESS Magazine.
The first study in the research project, entitled "Tool Development to Evaluate the Performance of Intermodal Connectivity (EPIC)," used rider surveys at 36 transit stops and stations in the Los Angeles area and several subsequent cities around the country. The purpose of the survey was to help identify what aspects of the rider experience transit users consider important and what factors of transit service substantially affect positive and negative rider experiences. The team's research shows that, while many major transit systems have recently invested in state-of-the-art vehicles and station buildings, a lack of amenities is not the primary factor behind low-ridership numbers. They found that certain out-of-vehicle hardships, or "travel burdens," directly correlate with perception of service quality of public transportation. This includes transit facility safety, long wait time and unreliable service.
Explains Iseki, "While this research began with a very specific goal to find a list of improvements for the transit built environment and amenities needed at transit transfer facilities, it has expanded to holistically examine a bigger question: Which attributes of transit service are fundamental to improving the transit users' experience, so that the transit system can maintain and even increase ridership?"
The team examined several ways that cities can combat these transit travel burdens and improve overall rider experience. Aside from attention to safety and security at transit stops, Iseki and his team suggest that small changes, such as providing real-time "next stop" information to riders, can possibly create a substantially more cost-effective impact on rider perception than big-budget changes, such as the addition of a high-speed rail system. They also noted that amenities play a part for riders when faced with prolonged wait times, and are more effective at bus stops and stations that see infrequent service rather than at busier stations. Using the knowledge gleaned from their research, the team has developed an online tool to help transit agencies identify issues and opportunity within a transit system. This new on-line tool was introduced and presented this past spring at the American Planning Association (APA) National Planning Conference in Los Angeles. Other parts of research have been presented at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) annual meeting, the Association of Credited School of Planning (ACSP) conference, and the World Conference on Transportation Research (WCTR).
Iseki, who is also an assistant professor for UMD's Urban Studies and Planning Program, has been studying transit issues in the US and abroad for over 12 years. His collaborative research on traveler perception has been featured in several publications, including Transport Reviews, Journal of Public Transportation and Journal of the Transportation Research Board. He is also conducting research in transit service coordination and transportation finance, specifically the up and downside to public private partnerships. Iseki's expertise has been tapped for several articles on the subject of transit, including pieces for the Washington Post and New York Times.
"There is still a lot of research to be done in the field of public transportation, particularly as it is one key component of sustainable transportation and community," explains Iseki. "A cost effective way to improve transit service that both appeals to public perception and produces real benefits is a critical piece in the future of U.S. public transportation system."