Understanding the basics behind transportation choices

When it comes to transportation choices, people generally do what is best for themselves. Understanding what factors influence people’s decisions can help the transportation industry and advocates better show the benefits of different transportation options that address different components of motivations.

What motivates someone to bike, or drive, or use transit? As the industry looks to influence demand, it’s important to recognize how commuters come to their decisions.


“Convenience is a big factor – and if it’s not there, we can’t sell it,” says Mobility Lab managing director Howard Jennings. Generally speaking, people choose transportation mode based on what is the most convenient, in terms of price, time, proximity, and flexibility. But how does one know that option is the best? Have they tried all the other ones at all? If people can use and access a transportation option flexibly, they will most likely use it. For transit, the key is typically increasing frequency and hours of service per day.


Monetary. More than half of people surveyed in randomized neighborhoods in the U.S. said that it was important to minimize costs in a trip. In the U.S., income typically informs transportation mode choices. Those with higher incomes will use transit less, unless they live in a city such as New York City or Washington, D.C., where transit is well-ingrained.

Gas prices are a major predictor of whether commuters choose to drive or ride transit. Back in 2008, for example, commuters in Washington State and many places found it easier to start a vanpool after gas prices exceeded over four dollars per gallon.

Time. In the U.S. (as elsewhere), people value their time. A key part of saving time is the reliability of how long a trip will take. If the bus is late every other day, or breaks down every other week, a commuter loses time and may choose other options. With unexpected occurrences, it’s important that transit riders have back up plans and up-to-date information. Bus-tracking apps and flexible payment systems help reduce some of the uncertainty and allow commuters to make informed, timely decisions.


Transit benefits in the U.S. are associated with much higher ridership, even in transit-deficient cities. Employees offered commuter benefits are five times more likely to take transit regularly, as opposed to other employees who do not receive benefits.

Chart via Citylab.

In fact, as research from Virginia Tech indicates, companies offering their employees transit benefits can have a large effect on their commute choices, especially if they do not offer competing parking benefits. Rather than rent expensive parking garages, employers can save money by offering some of that cost as subsidy to their employees in the form of transit subsidies.  Property managers can do the same, and by offering residents bikeshare memberships, free Metro cards, and more , work to to attract residents to property.

Commute distance

A TransitCenter survey on commute distance and use of transit found that, at less than half a mile, it is unlikely that people will use transit, as walking/biking numbers are high. At less than 2 miles, it is quite likely that people will use transit. But after that, the likelihood of commuting by transit decreases, as car usage rises.

tc whosonboard distance

Chart via TransitCenter’s 2014 Who’s on Board report.

Life events

There’s nothing like having a kid to make you to realize that you need to change the way you get around. A number of studies indicate that more than 90 percent of changes in car use are attributable to a life event: having that kid, getting fired, moving cities, getting married, and more. Life events act as a trigger to reassess people’s modes of travel, which otherwise governed by habit.

The transportation industry can use these kinds of opportunities, such as job relocation, to reach out to employees and help them understand what types of transportation options could serve them best.

In Arlington County, Va., Arlington Transportation Partners does exactly that with their Relocation Services. First, they survey the employees undergoing relocation on their current commuting habits, then ask where they will be living with respect to the workplace. Using this information, ATP creates customized materials with available transportation options (including time & cost involved) and information on various commute planning tools (like apps).

Other factors

There are many other factors that can contribute to transportation choice as well. Those with environmental concerns, for example, are more likely to eschew driving, as they see the link between environmental costs and car use. However, they tend to consider other factors such as monetary cost and convenience more important.

Acquiring a driver’s license qualifies as a life event, and predisposes people to rely more on driving. Once they’ve begun driving, the convenience of being able to hop into a personal high speed vehicle is addictive. Millennials are generally putting off getting their driver’s license, though, so they don’t have to/can’t drive, and are being multi-modal instead.

This is good for the TDM industry. With some attitudes already changing towards multi-modalism, TDM just has to provide the extra support, not life-altering incentives. It is important then, in the coming years, that agencies use this knowledge to provide proper services to people.

For many, it comes down to options

Giving people multiple options provides them the freedom to do what they want, when they want, how they want. In fact, if they try one new option, they are much more likely to try more. Being able to access other transportation options allows commuters to more efficiently respond to the above behavioral factors.  By addressing any set of the above barriers, advocates, transportation agencies, and cities can encourage large numbers of people to try smarter ways of commuting.

Photo: An ART bus picks up commuters outside the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

Share this item

2 Comments or Mentions

1 Comment(s)

Jane Hardin

Angela Urban’s article on the basics behind transportation choices is valuable information.
My request is for her to consider an article on how local officials can engage with the public to learn their preferred options at the beginning of their project planning.
I will be happy to share resources about inclusive planning techniques and successful examples.



This article has been mentioned in 1 other place(s).