Conventional schedules and maps harder to use than you think

Rising gas prices are sending people who formerly drove to seek out other options. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that some public transit systems are seeing ridership increases of up to 10 and 15 percent or more over last year in Gas Prices Send Surge of Riders to Mass Transit.

While ridership is up, I hypothesize that even more people are interested in riding public transportation but that not all of them make it onboard the bus or train. Why? Hard-to-use schedules.

Imagine the experience of someone who has never rode their local bus or train but decides to give it a try. The third most common internet activity for Americans, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is to “search for a map or driving directions,” (87%) behind only email and using search engines, so it’s natural to look online for public transportation information. If a transit provider’s website doesn’t offer a trip planner, the prospective rider will need to find the nearest stop to their home on a map, find scheduled service times for the stop, and, most likely, figure out where and how to transfer, by consulting maps and schedules for their destination and transfer point. The information-finding task is more complicated if it involves multiple agencies.

To someone who is unfamiliar with public transportation, this entire process may be sufficiently daunting to keep them driving. Consider a study conducted by the National Center for Transit Reseach at the University of South Florida, Design Elements of Effective Transit Information Materials (109 page PDF).

The study investigates how the general public (not necessarily existing transit riders) perform at planning a transit trip using conventional printed materials. For the purposes of the study, the trip planning process was considered as five stages. Most study participants were successful at identifying origin and destination points on a map, and at identifying nearby bus stops, but almost half of participants were unable to correctly identify bus times using the tabular schedules.

Good online information and Google Transit, a transit trip itinerary planner, can make a frustrating 5-step process that many new riders fail at (get one of the steps wrong, and the whole trip planning process is derailed) into a convenient 15-second experience. New bus riders have even told me that they spend a lot more time entering queries for trips to various destinations, not just their commute to work. Since it’s so fast, easy, and fun, they take the opportunity to explore and get to know the public transportation system, which means they will be much more inclined to get on the bus or train.

Every time someone goes to look for transit information looking for relief from high gas prices, but is frustrated by hard-to-use transit maps and schedules, public transportation misses a great opportunity. Partner with Trillium to reach the surge of people shifting from driving to public transit.