Three San Francisco Muni buses

Why transit reliability is such a big deal

Transit operators already know that passengers value reliability, but researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that some riders will switch modes if they can’t count on their bus or train.

Researchers defined the different ways that transit could be “unreliable” — late buses, overcrowded vehicles, missed transfers — and surveyed 123 current and 15 former¬†San Francisco Muni riders about their perceptions of unreliability and whether they changed their travel patterns in response.

Many survey respondents had strategies for coping with delays, and just over half (52%) said they reduced their use of Muni. Some simply avoided traveling on particularly unreliable routes or at certain times of day, but others stopped using Muni entirely.

About 93% of surveyed riders said they used real-time information for at least some trips, although riders reported some accuracy problems with the predictions — either buses not showing up when predicted or the opposite. However, fewer than 10% of riders stopped using real-time information because of bad predictions. “Of course,” as the researchers wrote, “lacking any other real-time services, this is still better than nothing, so this makes sense.”¬† Although the researched did not ask this question specifically, they also inferred that owning a smart phone with a data plan was correlated with use of real-time predictions.

Other research findings underscore the importance of providing passengers with information about delays. Riders were much more forgiving of incidents that they perceived to be beyond the control of the agency, like traffic delays or emergencies. “On the other hand,” they wrote, “out of all reliability problems included in the survey, the strongest influence on transit use reduction comes from experiencing delays due to operational problems – other transit vehicles being backed up or problems downstream on the route that are not immediately visible to the passenger (resulting in vehicles being held upstream).” The location of the delay also matters. Riders were more likely to reduce their transit use because of delays at a transfer point than at their starting point.

Finally, researchers observed that customers who relied on real-time predictions were not generally familiar with published timetables. This meant that riders were judging reliability against predicted rather than scheduled frequency. “Therefore,” they write, “infrequently scheduled service may be perceived as unreliable by passengers even if vehicles are operating on time, simply due to the large gaps between departures and passengers’ lack of knowledge of the scheduled frequency, thereby potentially leading to reductions in transit use.”

The paper was presented at the Transportation Research  Board Annual Meeting. Researchers were Andre Carrel, Anne Halvorsen, and Joan L. Walker. Link to full story in Governing.

Photo credit: barnoid/Flickr

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