Inspiring transit ridership requires meeting people where they are

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 2.19.59 PMPreferences and need are major factors that influence whether people take public transportation. And communicating to those people in the places they visit throughout their day is a key to improving and inspiring transit ridership.

A new report from the American Public Transportation Association, Who Rides Public Transportation?, reveals insights that will be useful to transportation professionals whose jobs require them to understand who rides transit, where they are going, and why they choose it.

The report finds that 71 percent of all transit riders are currently employed (as of the time of the survey). Putting this in context by adding work-commute trips to shopping, dining, and other social trips, APTA suggests every trip creates an economic benefit.

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Trip purposes – All transit users


Other interesting findings from the report about why people use transit include:

Differences across exact modes

Rail riders have a higher income, on average, than bus riders. As seen in the figure below, more people ride rail based on preference, since their income allows them to choose between multiple options. Bus riders, who generally have lower incomes, indicate need-based reasons for using transit in higher percentages than rail riders.

Thirteen percent of U.S. households have incomes less than $15,000. But that number rises to 21 percent in households that use transit – meaning transit is crucial for low-income households. They use it to get what they need, to go to doctor’s appointments, to go to school, and to run all of their other errands.

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Reason for transit use by transit modes


Another notable statistic is that rail riders are twice as likely as bus riders to cite taking transit due to the cost of parking. Relatedly, roughly 16 percent of bus riders use transit because they do not have a car (as opposed to the 1 percent of rail riders who say the same as their main reason for riding).

Rail riders typically have better access to cars, and thus care more about parking costs.

Bus riders, with significantly lower incomes, cannot afford these luxuries, and rely on transit for most of their needs, such as errands, school, and appointments.

Rail riders use transit more for work and recreation than bus riders. Rail riders are also more likely to be employed than bus riders, by almost 15 percent, so it makes sense that they would be using transit to get to work more.

Bus riders use transit more often than rail riders for need-based reasons, ranking about 5 percent higher than rail riders in using transit for appointments, school, and other reasons.

City size

Population differences also distinctly affect the reasons that people take transit. Larger cities see more transit use for work and recreation, while smaller cities use it for school, medical needs, and other purposes.

Following trends mentioned above, more than 70 percent of major city transit riders are employed, as opposed to the 40 percent of riders in small cities.

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Trip purpose and population


In addition, 20 percent of big-city transit riders earn a household income of $100,000 or more, nearly four times the percentage of high-income riders in small and mid-sized cities. In small and mid-sized cities, 45 percent of transit riders earn less than $15,000, while only 20 percent of big city populations do so.

This points towards what we see above with bus and rail riders. In big cities, people use transit for reasons aligned with preference, such as speed, convenience, and traffic, and smaller cities use it for need-based reasons.

Of interest are the two dominant and polarized reasons for taking transit in smaller cities: 26 percent cited convenience over driving, and 30 percent cited no access to a car.

Possible lessons

All of these trends are of interest for transportation demand management agencies looking to offer more transit options to new riders. For example, if connecting with existing transit riders is the goal, one can target rail riders, more employed than bus riders, through employers. Communicating with bus riders, who ride for more need-based reasons, could happen in community centers, doctor’s offices, or schools.

APTA’s report found that, in larger cities, riders mostly take transit to work and shopping and dining areas, whereas in small cities transit is used at a higher rate to reach schools and medical establishments.

These trends carry implications for TDM programs regarding how and where to best engage riders.

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