What Transit Agencies Should Ask Their Customers About

Michael Lewyn's picture

After reading this story about a transit agency surveying their customers, I thought to myself: do riders really want another survey asking whether they are satisfied or how clean the stations are?  Although clean stations are certainly better than unclean stations, I suspect that these are not transit riders' major priorities.  (And when I say "transit riders" I really of course mean "myself").

A bus is not a home.  A bus (or train) is someplace you spend a few minutes in on the way to home or work (or some other destination).  So the most important thing about a bus or train is whether it gets you to your ultimate destination quickly and reliably.

If I am right, the most important thing about my transit service is whether it stays quick and reliable by surviving the next round of budget cuts.(1)  So maybe transit authorities should be surveying their customers about how to deal with austerity.  For example, a transit authority could ask customers whether, assuming other government agencies will not close a gap between revenues and spending, the authority should solve that revenue gap through:

*raising fares by amount X (X being the amount needed to close the revenue gap)

*eliminating bus routes X, Y and Z (X, Y and Z being the bus routes most likely to be eliminated)

*increasing headways (time between buses), and/or

*curtailing late-night service (and of course whatever other options the transit authority might consider!)

These sorts of questions would certainly be of more interest to me than a survey asking how satisfied I am.

(1) Or, in good times, is improved as revenue grows.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Service reliability

Perhaps they should ask their customers how they feel about service reliability. I can assure you that being stuck for any significant amount of time in a non-moving vehicle has an *extremely* negative impact on ridership. And once someone decides that a transportation option is not reliable, it is very hard to win them back.

Transit agencies need to understand how to deal with this all too frequent situation, particularly now that much of our infrastructure is in such a decrepit state. If they are in the service business (which I think they are), they need to understand their customers and what is important to them. Perhaps offering a free ticket if the delay exceeds 15 minutes would be a reasonable gesture.

Service Reliability

I second asking about service reliability.

I've seen an agency (and I know others do this) ignore chronic issues (like a driver being chronically late to the beginning of the route), stop communicating with customers at 4:30 PM or 5:00 PM (and also not there at 6:30 AM), and ignore driver training so much their drivers occasionally get lost.

A service-oriented agency would ask customers if there are any outstanding chronic issues. Even without asking customers, agencies should be able to determine demand throughout the day and be able to determine the amount of resources they need to put towards communications (twitter, call center, etc.).

Survey the riders at all?

As a transit planner, when I need useful route / schedule planning information, I rarely turn to rider surveys for the answers. I realize this is antithetical to participatory planning orthodoxy, but surveys have limited usefulness at this level of technical detail.

When asking whether service should be cut, fares raised, span trimmed, etc., rider surveys only serve to confirm long-standing, unresolvable divisions between ridership markets. The express rider says, "cut those putzy local routes!" The local rider says, "cut those posh express buses!" The 8:17 a.m. rider says, "cut anything but the 8:17 trip!" And so on. Likewise on the question of service expansion. People don't think about "the system" -- they think about themselves, and why should we expect any differently?

Rider surveys also exclude a large portion of the potential market, because you're only talking to people who already ride the bus. It can skew your priorities toward beefing up existing service, rather than establishing new routes that tap into underserved markets.

Furthermore, people aren't always cognizant of the factors that influence their decisions. Yes, time and cost are always big ones, but I argue that the qualitative experience is equally important. Why are certain people drawn to light rail, but not bus service of the same speed, frequency, and cost?

Image, aesthetics, and comfort matter, but may not be at the forefront of a passenger's consciousness. How an operator cares for its fleet and facilities reflects overall on the organization's professionalism, attention to detail, and sensitivity to its customers. And it creates a feedback loop: passengers will treat the facilities and equipment with no more care and respect than the agency does, and it can raise or lower the bar for the kind of clientele who might be attracted to the service. A passenger may not mark this #1 on a transit wish list, but these considerations have a real impact.

Focus groups?

All good questions - I wonder if this points to a focus group bringing all these viewpoints together (including the pool of non-riders who might ride), with education about the system and options, as a better approach than a survey?

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