Governing has studied Census data to compile new findings that suggest public transportation finds it tough to compete with driving because it takes too much time. Interestingly, Ames, Iowa, and Madison, Wis., are two places where driving and transit take about the same amount of time.
Cutting down on commute times represents an opportunity to serve more riders who otherwise have a choice in how to get to work.
Of course, those taking public transportation where service is limited are bound to be in for longer commutes. But cities with robust transit networks still show numbers that lag well behind driving.
There’s a lot that transit agencies might do to attract more riders who aren’t transit-dependent. Research suggests improvements in service quality, including speeds and wait times, have about twice as much effect on ridership as fare adjustments. Riders traveling during off-peak times are more sensitive to changes in frequency of trains or buses than those who commute during rush hour.
Over the years, bus systems sometimes increase the number of zigzag routes through neighborhoods, accommodating more stops but slowing down commutes. Transit agencies are now simplifying and straightening their routes to speed them up, Polzin says. Investments in faster light rail and bus rapid transit systems should further curb travel times. And for many, service reliability is just as important. To this end, real-time information systems, such as those supporting smartphone apps, help reduce uncertainty.
Faced with declining ridership, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, recently took the radical step of redesigning its entire bus network. The agency restructured it into a new grid system with straighter routes. “To take an average speed of a route from 12 to 14 mph is actually a big deal,” says Kurt Luhrsen, the transit agency’s vice president of service planning.