Transit as a lifelong habit: Early transit use informs choices later on in life

Travel choices are a habit, and not just one for a day-to-day consideration. A new study by Michael Smart and Nicholas Klein found that people who lived near reliable transit options early in their lives, such as in their 20s and 30s, were more likely to choose transit later on. Writing on Planetizen, the authors note this held true even when people later moved to areas where transit was less reliable. These people were also more likely to live “car-light” lifestyles, owning fewer cars than average.

The study, “Rembrance of Cars and Buses Past,” published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, used a survey of households maintained since 1968 in order to follow transportation choices over long periods of time.

According to Smart and Klein, the study has implications for how planners address ridership rates and regard investments in reliable transit, many of which also apply to potential transportation demand management programs.

“Planners should consider transit as a long-term investment in neighborhoods and the people who live there. By encouraging exposure to transit at an early age (for instance, through free or reduced transit passes for students, recent transplants, or new hires), transit agencies and advocates could “plant the seed” for future ridership. These long-term benefits may be difficult to quantify and incorporate in cost-benefit analyses, though our research suggests the payoffs may be substantial.”

While many campuses might offer some kind of discounted transit pass already as a way to manage near-term issues of parking crunches, these findings support a longer-term justification. In the D.C. region, the unlimited Metro passes offered at American University and Howard University may be influencing transit riders decades down the line, so WMATA might consider the program an investment in future ridership.

The authors also point out that the findings could have considerable implications for younger people currently moving into cities at higher rates. Even if they eventually move to less-dense areas as they have families, they may take transit at higher rates than others and will likely own fewer cars.

Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com

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