Transportation equity and online transit information

In the U.S., many people think of public transportation as a service for the most economically-disadvantaged people.

Since computers and internet access cost money, I’ve had a few people suggest to me that online transit information is not actually serving the needs of less-well-off transit riders very well.  I don’t think that bears out.

First, more people are online than you think.  Overall, 75% of U.S. adults use the internet, and 56% of people who make less than $30,000/year use the internet.  As for transit users in particular, Transit Marketing found that 65% of transit riders in the Sacramento area had access to the internet either at home or work (and 44% of riders had used Sacramento RT’s website).

More interestingly, wireless users who earn less than $20k/year are more likely to text or use mobile data services than people who earn $40-$50k per year, and as are folks who make $20k-$40k/year compared to those who make $50l-$75k per year (Source: Pew Internet: Mobile Access to Data and Information).  My guess is that some of these people may not own a computer or have ready desktop access to the internet, and they make up for that by using mobile data services on their phone.

Still, even though even with growing and widespread access to the internet and mobile data services, the digital divide is real.  But I believe that innovative marketing and convenient, easy-to-use online transit information benefits even those who don’t use it directly.

Some months ago, I participated in an online discussion on sparked by the Onion’s satirical (and funny) news article “98% of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others.” Some said the article just reinforced stereotypes around public transportation.  Others, myself included, believe that the article points out real stereotypes that have effects on people’s behavior.  My friend Shannon Tracey made the point that making more people and more groups regular transit riders will benefit everyone.  I thought she did a great job at expressing this:

Improving availability and affordability for public transportation is an incredibly powerful antioppressive mission because it can improve the lives of people who can’t just hop in the car if they miss the bus.  (No matter how committed a bus rider you are – if you have a car, you have another option, and that freedom/privilege exists even if you don’t exercise it.)  Increasing middle-class ridership is a step towards that end – more riders, more service – but in the end the people who benefit most are low-income folks, kids, and the elderly.  If we actually recognize that and talk about it, I think we’re fighting oppression rather than perpetuating it.

Techie improvements can also provide an image boost for transit, which in turn feeds back to make transit sexier and help ridership, but also make it more fundable in the eyes of politicians.  David Sullivan, Hampton Road Transit’s VP for planning and technology put it neatly:

An additional, unexpected benefit for HRT has been a PR boon that Sullivan calls “the Google effect.” He explains, “Public transit in the area is not always well regarded, so we got a positive public image from associating with Google” (Google Transit Partner Program: Success Story)

Update: Adina Levin posted an excellent response to this post.

Aaron is the founding principal of Trillium Solutions, Inc. He brings experience that includes 12 years of web-development with 8 years in public transportation, with knowledge of fixed-route transportation, paratransit, rural transportation, and active transportation modes. Aaron is a recognized expert in developing data standards, web-application design, digital communications, and online marketing strategy. He originally developed Trillium’s GTFS Manager, and has played a key role in the development of the GTFS data specification since 2007.