Nudging People to Transit

Around the time of Portland’s Biketown bikeshare launch, I read an article at BikePortland.org about the early success of the program. A behavioral economist helps identify the factors contributing to Biketown’s popularity using a framework describing the science behind behavioral change – the kind needed for widespread adoption of bikesharing. Simply put, to encourage people to try a new behavior, you need to make it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.

This got me thinking about how we might nudge more people to use public transit. How would that EAST framework look to a public transit* agency?

*I generally consider bikesharing public transit, so here, public transit refers only to bus and rail transit.

 Escalators and ramps make it easy for passengers with bags to access transit

Escalators and ramps make it easy for passengers with bags to access transit

Make it Easy

Transit agencies & planners can remove barriers to their service. Make finding the bus stop, route and schedule information easy for everyone, including visitors and people who don’t speak the local language. Make transit usable for a person in a wheelchair, a mom with two kids, and a blind man to use your system. Make it easy to buy a ticket, add money to a smartcard, and pay a fare. Help people find their way to and through a transit system with clear wayfinding signage. Educate people about new services with outreach, information and prototypes. Provide information to passengers who need help.  

 colors and architectural elements make this bus stop attractive and inviting

colors and architectural elements make this bus stop attractive and inviting

Make it Attractive

Overcome the fallacy of “captive transit users” and treat passengers like customers who you want to return. Attractive service is convenient, frequent service that makes transit a compelling alternative to driving alone. It also ought to mean comfortable, well-designed and appealing service. Bus stops and transit stations need to be clean (without urine), well lit and weather resistant. A good heuristic would be whether a young woman would feel comfortable waiting there late at night. Vehicles should also be well-designed and attractive with adequate seating and standing room as well as designated spaces for wheelchairs, strollers and bicycles. Furthermore, a transit service’s brand should be appealing and clearly sell the service’s core characteristics (e.g. fast, cool, modern, innovative).

 

 Twitter transit haiku poetry jam between SF Bart and LA Metro

Twitter transit haiku poetry jam between SF Bart and LA Metro

Make it Social

One of my favorite things about public transit is the shared public experience — sharing a metro ride with a cross section of the community I may not otherwise encounter in my day. In that way, public transit is inherently social, but transit agencies could use that more to their advantage. Marketing, branding and outreach campaigns can focus on social proofing public transit —building interest by showing others using transit. Transit agencies should be on social media, but Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t just be used to inform about delays (consider a separate account for those service disruption announcements) but instead feature frank discussions, hashtag campaigns, haiku poetry slams, and passenger photos so potential users can see others using and enjoying the system. This can bring personality to the agency brand, and make using transit even more of a social activity.

Make it Timely

To maximize interest and ridership, new transit services should be timed to coincide with local seasons and events. Launching Denver’s the A-line train in the spring rather than dead of winter makes obvious sense. Rio de Janeiro used their hosting of the 2016 Summer Olympics to accelerate development of 156km of new transit lines. Furthermore, transit service schedules should match local user needs which includes reliable transportation outside of white collar commuting hours, including nights and weekends. Cities should provide late night service for service industry and shift workers, and as an alternative to drunk driving after bars close. Extra event service may be needed for large sporting events, conventions or city events.

This EAST framework which helps explain the phenomenal early success of Biketown, is a good rule of thumb for transit agencies too. Easy, attractive, social & timely service will help nudge more people onto the bus.