How can a business with high satisfaction lose customers? This is happening with Arlington Transit (ART), which has 86% customer satisfaction, according to a new Mobility Lab study. From 2016 to 2018, ART’s ridership declined 7% after having more than doubled from 2009 to 2016, peaking at nearly 3.5 million trips annually. Of course, bus services throughout the country are facing similar customer declines, so ART is not alone.
Indeed, research such as the Arlington Transit (ART) Satisfaction Study may help not only the county itself, but other localities design studies to examine how to get more customers aboard. More bus riders, and fewer cars, in turn means less congested streets, less local pollution and fewer climate change emissions, and fewer parking spaces that clog our valuable urban spaces.
ART provides a key service in a county noted for its transit innovation, connecting passengers from Washington, DC area Metrorail and bus service, as well as a pioneering rapid bus line, to create a seamless transit web. The system has been an early adapter of internet and smart phone tools, clean buses that use natural gas, and wheelchair and bike accessibility, among other innovations.
Despite all its achievements, however, ART is still working to attract more ridership. Lama Bou Mjahed, Research Director of Mobility Lab, who lead the study explained the importance of “focusing on marketing, focusing on raising awareness on what ART is. Because what we’ve heard in focus groups is that a lot of people did not know what ART was, some thought it was a specialty bus, they didn’t know what the schedules are, what routes, where they can go.” ART, like a lot of city buses, can do much more to make people understand just how convenient and affordable the bus can be.
There’s more reason than ever for such outreach. The literature suggests that transit is facing competition from transportation network companies (TNCs), notably Uber and Lyft, micro-mobility options such as bikeshare and electric scooters, as well as telecommuting. In addition, the recent strong economy along with inexpensive gas may be increasing car use and decreasing bus ridership.
Some studies indicate that these alternative modes often take away from bus ridership. In the Arlington Transit (ART) Satisfaction study, 19% of respondents “indicated that they use ART bus less often due to an increase in ride-hailing.” Voluntary respondents may even understate the case, as some individuals might not want to admit to an environmentally unfriendly option.
However, TNC’s can also complement transit use. In the ART study, 20% indicated having increased their ride-hailing usage, making it hard to draw on causality. In the long run, it is also be possible that these modes will lead to less car ownership and perhaps even increase use of public transit.
Understanding rider satisfaction
To better plan how to maintain and increase ridership, the ART study used three methods to gather data: an onboard survey, an online survey, and qualitative focus groups. The focus groups were centered around three key neighborhoods with high bus ridership: Arlington Mill, Buckingham, and the Roslyn-Ballston Corridor.
The stereotype is that many people ride the bus for the simple reason that they have no choice—they cannot drive or owning a car is too expensive. Yet in Arlington, 74% of passengers are choice riders and they report they are more satisfied with ART than those riders without other options.
Why do customers choose ART? 55% of respondents picked convenience as a reason, the largest category, followed by affordability, access to destinations, and ease of use. Lack of a car comes in fifth, surprising in a nation where buses are often seen as the last resort. Also defying stereotype, lapsed and non-bus riders’ focus groups chose the word “clean” as number one in describing ART buses (although this could encompass both physical cleanliness and environmental impact). It is unknown whether stereotypes about buses are generally wrong or whether something about Arlington causes its high choice ridership—perhaps its great bus service or social expectations that favor transit. However, one negative perception that focus group members did agreed on is that buses are slow.
For those who choose to ride the bus, the primary purpose is work, at 81%; indeed, 57% use it only for work. The data do show a robust choice ridership, perhaps because driving a car at rush hour is such hassle, perhaps out of a desire to decrease congestion. Surprisingly, choice riders say they are more likely to continue riding the bus than non-choice riders, 82% versus 69%; perhaps the latter aspire to car ownership and “graduation” to a car. Choice riders have an average income of $72,400, twice that of transit dependent riders.
Fighting the tide of declining ridership
One key question the Arlington Transit Satisfaction Study may help answer is how to increase bus ridership. The onboard survey suggests many improvements, with 38% of respondents supporting more frequent bus service, 34% better real-time information, and 32% improved on-time performance. Online surveys also call for more frequent service but emphasize more coverage and free transfers. Qualitative research gives a slightly different answer; “The strongest disadvantage of ART,” according to focus groups, “is route coverage,” which participants felt was limited to main corridors. (On the other hand, the online research shows only 13% reporting that the service doesn’t go to their destinations.)
The next three categories were judged almost as important as the top three by onboard research: reduced fares, more areas serviced, and free wi-fi. With the exception of reduced fares, the six key areas have technical solutions and will often require more money to fix (although a well redesigned bus system may save money). In other words, there is no single key to increasing bus service; planners need to consider a variety of factors and to implement these in a comprehensive fashion, preferably in tandem with educational campaigns.
Education may be as important as engineering
Despite the strong preference for technical solutions, the focus group research suggests that education about how to use access the bus could be crucial. For nonusers, the bus can be a riddle wrapped in an enigma; “people do not seem to know where these buses go, how much they cost, or the level of service they provide,” says The Arlington Transit Satisfaction Study. “Some participants seemed open to considering ART if there was more information available.” Notably, only 30% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “I am familiar with ART’s schedule” and only 31% indicated familiarity with ART’s routes. Transit officials need to be aware that the first step to something new is often the hardest, that it means breaking the inertia that often rules people’s life.
Indeed, social factors may be important in ways neglected by survey respondents. The study observes that recent scholarly “literature puts forward the importance of accounting for subjective measures such as perceptions and attitudes” and goes on to suggest several ways riders may be swayed and non-riders brought on board. Although loyalty is important to any brand, some focus group responses did not show loyalty to ART; they saw it as a useful service but would substitute other options. Yet some people did respond enthusiastically to the idea of loyalty rewards. Of course, qualitative responses can be subjective—it may be that force of habit is what creates “loyalty” rather than overt emotions. “There’s a certain reality to habit,” one respondent pointed out (discussing car loyalty) and the report suggests that “while riders may not consider themselves emotionally loyal to ART, they do engage with ART in a way that implies customer loyalty.”
So how can ART bring new riders aboard? The report includes multiple suggestions to increase ridership. Very different marketing segments should be targeted: the tech-savvy, Spanish speakers, choice riders, and those experiencing lifestyle changes. Major strategies include better investment, more marketing, and celebrating what the bus has already achieved.
Bou Mjahed suggested “making the transportation system more integrated, more multi-modal,” for instance taking Uber to the bus, while “using the same app, same way to pay.” For tech-savvy youth, different payment means, such as mobile payment, would be helpful. Younger respondents also prefer seeking information about ART on digital channels such as social media, while older ones stick to traditional media, so for the time being transit agencies need to provide both, while exploring innovation to build their passenger base.
Targeting Spanish speakers is also crucial. The report even suggests cross-cultural training, since many Spanish speakers feel they are being treated differently from other customers. In the Spanish focus groups, “many participants shared feeling discriminated against by either the bus drivers or the other passengers,” and may see themselves viewed as intruders, the report explains. Bou Mjahed added that many felt, “either the drivers ignore them or treat in a different way, because they’re Hispanic.” Training should raise awareness among drivers.
Infrequent and non-riders request more information, according to the survey, so this provides an opportunity for transit agencies to make it easier to ride the bus. As with anything new, making that first experience easy is key. Fare-free days may thus be an effective way of seducing new riders. On the time versus money nexus, time does not always come out ahead. Only about a third of respondents said they will always take the faster route over the less expensive option, suggesting that Arlington transit should advertise its affordable fares.
Other focus group suggestions include using bus ambassadors, for instance influential people who use ART. Even drivers can be bus ambassadors, so use them to promote their service. Other suggestions include partnering with local restaurants or notable attractions, advertisements on buses that show ART’s benefits such as its low fare, multiple payment options, and free trial days.
Pioneering multi-modal sustainable transit
The Arlington Transit (ART) Satisfaction Study shows that Arlington residents enjoy a mixture of transportation options, that the move to a multi-modal, sustainable transportation system could work. High tech, such as smart phones and integrated systems, provides an opportunity to integrate transit networks, to make bus systems such as ART essential to a menu of daily transportation options.
All in all, improving bus service is always key to increasing bus ridership—if you build it they will come. Yet if you advertise it, they will also come; if you reach out to people, they are likely to come sooner, in greater numbers. Thinking through the needs and preferences of different communities—seniors, young people, choice riders, ethnic minorities, and more—is key. And that requires gathering information that tells, not what policy makers think people want, but what they actually want.