There's specific reasoning behind why some public transportation routes and systems as a whole are successful while others aren't, and a 2016 study by TransitCentre seeks to find out why that is — though the study is slightly outdated, the principles of it still apply today.
For example, Seattle's light rail extension from the downtown core to the University of Washington has boosted ridership from 35,000 to nearly 57,000 riders per day, but the ridership of the Atlanta streetcar is only 1,200 riders per day. This survey aims to find out why there's such a disparity between different transit systems and their ridership, and what makes them more successful in the eyes of riders.
The findings in the TransitCentre report are based on 3,000 individual survey results from 17 metro regions across the US, and finds that a well-used system depends on nearby infrastructure, frequency of reliable service, and reduced travel times. Surprisingly enough, riders said that wifi and power outlets aren't a priority at the top of their list — though they're nice to have, riders don't deem them essential for a successful transit system.
With the report, the assumption that riders without cars are trapped into using transit was struck down. “The idea that people without cars are ‘captive’ and will use transit regardless of quality is severely overstated,” the report detailed. This sort of mentality often results in poorer service, especially in low-income neighborhoods where transit service is needed most, and an over-saturation of transit service in suburbs in an attempt to woo over new riders.
There's a huge issue going on in the public transportation sector currently with ridership decreasing at an alarming pace, with the US facing a 2.5 percent drop in total ridership between 2016 to 2017 and a 5 percent drop in bus ridership alone. Overall there's been a nationwide decline in ridership since 2014, despite growth in the population.
The two most important factors in the rider's mind are service frequency and the time it takes to get to their destination, alongside the availability of this information to them at the station or stop they're waiting at. Take Dublin for instance, whose whole network is in the process of a redesign that will see buses on the new-and-improved routes arriving every 4-8 minutes, though the media is causing confusion about what is actually changing (spoiler: not much is).
People are generally quick to criticize transit authorities for low ridership, but they aren't only accountable for maximizing their ridership to recoup costs. In democracies, whoever makes the decisions for transit is accountable for voters, making low-ridership services just as important as routes with higher passengers. Services where the goal isn't to maximize ridership are called coverage services, meaning they're just there so that a neighborhood doesn't become a transit desert with no way around.
There's several different reasons why the frequency of transit services is important for riders, including that higher headways reduce waiting, make connections easier and build in time for things like mechanical breakdowns and delayed buses. When you double the frequency of a bus route, you've instantly doubled the operating cost but in the long haul, have increased the productivity of the line because it comes more often and people don't have to wait as long to catch their bus. The same goes for weekend service and service that stretches later into the evening, which seems like a dumb investment at first — adding service during a time when the ridership is historically lower — but people won't use transit service during the day if they don't have a way to get back home, making this service ideal for retail and restaurant workers who don't stick to the typical nine-to-five weekday schedule.
Frequency pushes the notion that ridership depends on the design of a whole network; it won't make any difference to riders if the first bus they take comes every five minutes if they have to wait 30 minutes for their connecting one. It is an overwhelmingly important factor because it directly determines the real travel time in an urban context.