Transit agencies across the U.S. face the challenge of keeping the bus system competitive and attractive, amidst rapid changes in mobility options and shifting demographics. Examples include: new mobility options that introduce a new brand of convenience, an evolving commute driven by the rising prevalence of telecommuting and younger commuters (or millennials) with seemingly changing preferences for transportation options. All these, along with system performance (such as frequency and coverage), add complexity to understanding what’s driving the travel behavior and preferences of today’s travelers.
Arlington County is no exception, witnessing declining bus ridership on Arlington Transit (ART) since 2016, mirroring the nationwide trend of stagnating and decreasing transit ridership after 2013. To better get a grasp of the dynamics behind changes in ridership in Arlington County, Virginia, and assess current perceptions of ART users and non-users, Mobility Lab conducted a study examining perceptions, attitudes, loyalty and travel behavior patterns of Arlington residents and workers, with the ultimate objective of identifying ways to attract riders to the Arlington Transit (ART) bus service.
The study provides rich insight by leveraging both qualitative and quantitative findings gathered from four focus groups, 1,000 respondents of intercept onboard surveys on selected ART routes, and 399 respondents of the online panel survey. All respondents were traveling to, from, or within Arlington; respondents were either living, working, or visiting Arlington. The online survey was limited to non-residents who work in Arlington and residents.
Three key conclusions are discussed below, but the reader can refer to the published report for a more comprehensive set of findings and recommendations.
- Convenience and affordability drive Arlington Transit bus ridership
ART, Arlington County’s local bus service, enjoys high satisfaction ratings: 86% are satisfied with the ART bus service, 78% are very likely to use the ART bus in the future, and 64% have a positive image of the ART bus. Arlington residents, employees, and visitors cite convenience and affordability as top reasons for riding the ART bus. ART is often used by riders to travel to work or school, regardless of their access to a car.
The study highlights how ART is a viable and environment-friendly option for traveling around Arlington County, which boasts of a multitude of transportation options. Currently, ART operates 16 routes throughout the county and ART buses operate on clean-burning compressed natural gas.
- ART appeals to a wide range of users
Based on the study’s findings, there is no single “type” of ART rider. ART riders tend to be employed, racially and ethnically diverse, live in smaller households composed of three people, and do not live in households with children under 18 years old. Millennials make up 43% of the ART ridership.
Factors that influence Arlington travelers’ mode choice which affect overall bus ridership are age, level of income, and changes in lifestyle (e.g., location change of a job/school/residence, changes in schedule, having children, separation or divorce).
- Information and service coverage appear to be biggest barriers to using ART
Despite the high satisfaction ratings and the strong indicator of loyalty among ART riders, ART does not seem to be the top choice for leisure or personal trips. According to findings from the focus group research in particular, route coverage is the top disadvantage of ART when compared to other public transportation options. However, this was in relation to trips beyond the main corridors of Arlington, or out towards Reagan National Airport. As the local bus service of Arlington County, ART by design should have better coverage within the bounds of Arlington compared to other buses (such as WMATA).
Lack of information was also cited as a barrier to using ART, among current and non-users alike. Based on the study, more information dissemination campaigns could help increase awareness about ART’s routes and service coverage areas. The focus group research also highlighted the need for more general information about ART to raise awareness among non-users. More accurate real-time information also appealed to ART users.
Four key suggestions were given to Arlington County based on the research findings to help make informed decisions on ways to attract and retain riders:
Suggestion 1: Continue to study current and potential customers to understand how to better tailor services to their transportation needs and target investments in service and marketing.
In particular, the research findings suggest that the County should possibly be cognizant of the types of tech-savvy travelers, Spanish-speaking travelers, choice riders (i.e., people who have more than one transportation option available to them) and people experiencing changes in their lifestyle.
Suggestion 2: Invest in in improving the bus service by prioritizing: (1) on-time arrivals, (2) expanding route coverage, (3) frequency and (4) providing amenities such as bus shelters. These four priority areas stood out as important factors in the riders’ perceptions of transportation options and mode choice. The four priority areas were all about ways to improve the rider’s experience.
Suggestion 3: Invest in ART marketing to: (1) make it more inclusive, (2) increase awareness and understanding of the service, (3) target specific segments such as seniors, and (4) promote the benefits of shifting to public transit such as cost savings and a hassle-free commute experience. ART marketing efforts could either help in making ART buses more competitive to other modes, or encourage participation of certain segments of the population in Arlington, such as seniors and the Spanish-speaking community.
Suggestion 4: Celebrate ART’s well-perceived image and high satisfaction, but explore innovative ways to stay competitive. Examples of innovations that ART can explore include: (1) new alternative modes of payment (i.e., being able using your phone or credit card), (2) include drivers in the effort to promote the user experience, and (3) appoint ambassadors to promote the ART service and possibly build a rewards programs.
The study’s findings and the outlined recommendations provide an important roadmap for strategic planning for the ART bus system, and possibly other transit agencies. It is important to continue research on understanding the wants and needs of Arlington travelers, and in particular identify the motivations and barriers to using ART. This research effort is an important step towards helping boost ridership, and ultimately continuing to make taking transit more attractive in Arlington. The results should be read within the context of Arlington County and the data collected in this study.
The Arlington Transit Satisfaction Study is a result of the collaboration between Mobility Lab, operated by DS&MG and a division of the Arlington County Commuter Services Bureau, and the Arlington County Transit Bureau within the County’s Department of Environmental Services. WBA Research, as Mobility Lab’s research subcontractor, reviewed survey materials, collected the data, and analyzed the results under the supervision of Mobility Lab.
Infographic by Tasha Arreza