Management & Operations

Time: an often overlooked transit quality measure

Posted on March 1, 2001 by Cliff Henke, Associate Publisher/Editor

It almost goes without saying, but quite often the most important factor determining what way we travel is how fast it can get us there. Yet, too often it seems to be a missing ingredient in the public transport industry’s measurements of customer satisfaction. There are other important measures of transit success and service quality, of course. They include safety (even the perception of safety is often more important than actual crime statistics), fare level and on-time performance. On that last point, perception is again often more important than reality—if the service is pretty frequent, people will perceive the service to be reliable even if schedule adherence is pretty horrible. It’s one reason why some studies show that even doubling service frequency can result in more than a four-fold improvement in ridership. Time attracts choice riders I want to cite a personal example of how important time can be as a feature of transit quality. I must admit something: This transit editor, who has covered the industry for 20 years, commutes alone to work in his car. Before you write me off as an environmental pariah, know that I live nearly 40 miles from my office and that I telecommute several days per week on average. Back to my point. One day I decided I wanted to commute by bus or train—my car wasn’t even in the repair shop or anything. I went to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Website ( It’s a splendid site—like a growing number in the industry, it has a trip planning feature. I punched in my home address and my work’s and clicked on the submit button. It beautifully displayed multiple travel options in seconds. So far so good. Except for one thing. The fastest journey time estimated that if all went according to schedule, it would take me one hour and 57 minutes to reach my destination. Even on a rainy, dark night in L.A. traffic, slogging through the heart of the beast, I would match that journey time in my car. And I still wouldn’t have to walk to bus stops for several blocks on both ends of my route. Needless to say, this is not the way to win choice riders. Before you begin to question my sanity as to why I picked this system as one of the industry’s most improved, I fully concede that L.A.’s transit system is at a severe disadvantage in trying to accommodate my situation. As I often explain to journalists in the general interest media, our cities took 50 or more years to get us in this situation of transit unfriendliness, and it might take us as long to get out of these development patterns. Yet, time is a very important consideration to many choice riders. They are willing to pay premiums well over the base fare for skip-stop and express service. What the industry needs to do is to test that proposition more thoroughly. It needs to ask in every city: What are you willing to pay if you could get to your destination in an hour? Half an hour? In other words, it needs to battle the convenience of the car with not only the convenience of letting someone else do the driving for less money, but also with a reasonable match in the speed—even on congested freeways. How to find the value of speed Allow this editor, who has never managed a transit system for a nanosecond, to present two ways that might help test choice riders’ value on speed. The first way is your Website. Virtually every agency now has a Website and your marketing staff can help fashion a question that would help you test various fare points and trip speeds. You can use that feedback to help design a service and fare price acceptable to those prospective riders. The second way is by contracting or franchising service. One could issue a tender document asking for proposals of how contract operators would design such services and what they propose to charge. The winning bid would be determined by the best combination of service level, trip speeds and pricing. For the skeptical, that is exactly what many U.K. cities have done. Then, watch the riders and revenue roll in.

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