Posted by Hester Serebrin at Aug 24, 2017 08:05 PM | Permalink

The following is the last guest post from our summer intern, Dayanne:

Making Transit a Top Contender

The 3-mile extension on the LINK Light Rail system from Downtown Seattle to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington increased daily ridership from 35,000 to 57,000. On the other side of the country, the 3-mile Atlanta streetcar only serves a mere 1,000 riders a day, one sixth of its projected ridership. The LINK Light Rail system and the Atlanta streetcar use the same model of rail car, but the LINK Light Rail serves a total of 21 stations while the Atlanta streetcar only serves 12. Because the LINK Light Rail serves more stations, it is expected for it to have a higher number of daily riders, but the discrepancy in ridership is far too great to just be attributed to the gap in stations. This post attempts to explain the most unexpected and simple ways in which transit ridership can be increased and ways in which to make transit a primary mode of transportation for more people, according to a study by TransitCenter and other related sources.

Only two kinds of riders?

There is a flaw with the mentality that there are only two types of transit riders: those who have to ride transit, and those who choose to ride transit. Most often transit planners assume that not owning a car automatically results in having to ride transit. These riders are thought of as “captive riders”, and it is assumed that these riders will use public transit no matter the conditions of the system. The second group who choose to ride transit, “choice riders”, are deemed the coveted riders because they have other means to get around. New on-board amenities are thought to be required to lure these choice riders into riding public transit more often. This mentality leads to transit innovations that are meant to make transportation luxurious with amenities such as wifi, more cushioned seats, and lots of unnecessary leg room.

TransitCenter reports that it is more proactive to think of riders in three categories: occasional riders, commuters, and all-purpose riders, who use transit to go everywhere. The majority of trips are taken by all-purpose riders. Commuters and all purpose-riders often use transit for very similar reasons: they hope to save money and time by doing so. Commuters choose to take transit to work to avoid paying parking fees and traffic, but choose to drive when not commuting to work because it is easier than waiting for transit or even driving to a transit station. Oftentimes, employers will refund public transportation costs or provide transit benefits for their employees. This results in a more financially convenient option for employees because they do not have to pay parking fees or gas, but why do they hesitate to take transit when they are not going to work? Perhaps this is the issue that should be explored when trying to enhance the transit system, instead of installing luxurious amenities.

According to TransitCenter, all-purpose riders have the highest frequency of ridership during off-peak hours. Moving more folks from “commuter” to “all-purpose” riders would allow for transportation agencies to maximize capital assets by gaining more ridership. This would also result in being able to efficiently provide all-day service – without substantial all-day ridership, agencies may hesitate to provide more frequent service during off-peak hours when not a lot of people use public transportation.

Transit Infrastructure

Installing more cushioned seats and wifi hasn’t proven to make any considerable impact to transit ridership. When asked via a TransitCenter survey what improvement riders would prioritize to make transit more convenient, frequency and travel time showed up high on the list. To be able to keep all-purpose riders happy, transit quality must be kept at its highest state. Transit riders seem to choose shorter rides and more frequent transit above everything, while the lowest on their mind are outlets and wifi, which occupy less than 5% of the riders’ priorities.

A survey conducted by TransitCenter revealed that 80% of all-purpose transit riders walk to transit. This indicates that walkable infrastructure is crucial when trying to make transit more efficient. A broader study indicates that people that are able to walk to transit are more likely to use transit. The proximity of transit plays a big role in whether people choose to take transit or use another form of transportation. It can be concluded that if more transit stations and stops were installed near dense, walkable residential neighborhoods and places of high work opportunities, people would be more likely to use transit both to commute to work and as their primary form of transportation.

One of the biggest problems facing riders today is not having the appropriate basic transit facilities that make transit easy, safe, and comfortable. Things such as more covered bus stops to protect people from the rain or sun, trashcans so that bus stops will be kept clean, and light poles near bus stops to ensure security at night all help make riding transit more enjoyable. When transit riders are happy and comfortable, it allows them to keep using transit more often. This is the infrastructure that transit agencies and supporting jurisdictions should invest in when trying to make the transit system better for its customers.

Multimodal Connections

Remaining stuck in the mentality that transit is the only other type of transportation besides cars is outdated and impractical when thinking about transit. According to TransitCenter, all-purpose riders are the most multi-modal group of riders, often also walking and biking to get around. A report by the Shared-Use Mobility Center revealed that people who use shared modes, such as Car2Go, Spin, or LimeBike, are more likely to use public transportation. Transit and shared modes become complementary to each other, one resulting in the usage of the other to enhance the whole experience. Needless to say, all-purpose riders have more commute choices now than ever and are not tied down to using public transportation. To increase transit ridership agencies must not cater towards the occasional rider, but instead try to keep the all-purpose riders content and improve on the problems that keep the commuter rider from becoming an all-purpose rider. It is important to view and implement shared modes, walking, and biking as enhancers to transit and not as competition. They serve as the connection to the gap that exists between home and transit for many people.

Smart Stops and Frequency

Transit riders choose to take transit when it is more convenient for them to do so. Based on a study conducted, the more scarce transit access is, the higher number of occasional riders and lower numbers of all-purpose riders, while in cities where transit is plentiful and accessible, the number of occasional riders decreases and the number of all-purpose riders increases. It is  most convenient to be able to keep the largest amount of all-purpose riders.

But simply having a large number of stops doesn’t do the trick. The main factor of differentiation between the LINK Light Rail and the Atlanta streetcar are the neighborhoods they serve and how they chose to serve them. The LINK Light Rail serves to connect communities faster and efficiently with stops at crucial points in the city with good transit connections, while the Atlanta streetcar loops around the city with stops just blocks away from each other. Most people can walk the distance between the stops and for those who cannot, riding the streetcar is too expensive for the distance it travels.

In Conclusion

If Atlanta’s streetcar had really explored the community’s needs, it would have been able to better plan a smart route for the streetcar that maximized the number of people it serves. Fancy amenities, such as wifi and plugs, might mildly improve a passenger’s experience while on the bus, but it will not increase their frequency in ridership if transit is not a cheaper or faster option than driving. To do so, infrastructure should cater to the all-purpose riders and transit frequency and reliability must be increased —  even people with cars would choose transit if it was convenient and easy.


“Who’s On Board 2016.” TransitCenter. Accessed August 23, 2017.

Who’s On Board 2016

“Without More Walkable Cities, Building New Transit Won’t Reverse Metro’s

Ridership Decline.” LA Times. Accessed August 23, 2017.


Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. Vol. 80. Denver, CO:

Department of Geography and the Environment, n.d. Accessed August 23, 2017.

Shared Mobility and the Transformation of Public Transit.


Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. Vol. 80. Denver, CO:

Department of Geography and the Environment, n.d. Accessed August 23, 2017.

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