What do Riders Want?
When she speaks about the health of neighborhoods, Dr. Seema Iyer of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore often encourages audiences to think of cities as living organisms - neighborhoods as muscles, people as oxygen, and transportation systems as the blood that carries oxygen to the muscles.
That analogy helps explain why businesses and property owners in downtown Columbus, Ohio, recently announced they will provide a bus pass to every downtown employee that wants one. Their stated purpose is to attract workers and businesses by alleviating traffic congestion and demand for all-day parking.
The analogy also helps explain why in 2009 Baltimore City raised a tax on parking in garages and lots to fund the Charm City Circulator, a free bus service to move people around downtown. Reports from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore indicate that between 2010 and 2015 downtown Baltimore experienced an increase in residents (7%) and employment (8%), compared with flat or declining numbers citywide.
Public transportation performs a vital function for the health of greater Baltimore by moving people around without consuming large amounts of space on our clogged roads and highways at rush hour, or in parking lots and structures the rest of the time. That leaves more space available for other vital uses such as stores, offices, homes, parks, schools, and open space.
In greater Baltimore the buses, trains and vans of the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) carry people on more than 360,000 trips on a typical day. During rush hour, on a major artery such as St. Paul Street, as many as a third of the people passing a given point are on MTA buses. By one estimate, 18% of rush hour travelers between Baltimore and Washington are on MARC trains. If the MTA did not exist, those riders would either jam up the roads and highways with additional cars and trucks or suffer unemployment and lack of access to goods and services. The entire region benefits from the role the MTA performs.
But given the considerable public investment (an annual operating budget over $750M) and the critical nature of its role, how well does the MTA perform? Are recent initiatives like BaltimoreLink, in which the MTA introduced an entirely redesigned network of bus routes, resulting in improved performance? What performance measures can we use to evaluate results and push for continuous improvement going forward?
At the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance we have challenged the MTA to be as explicit as it can about the indicators that describe performance. We recognize that a key aspect of performance is whether people use the service and what aspects of the service make it attractive.
Research at the local and national levels can teach us what riders want.
Locally, in 2009 we commissioned market research to understand what factors would influence residents of the region to use public transportation at least one more day per week than they currently do. In 2010 we piloted Rate Your Ride, a tool that allows riders to complete a brief survey about the quality of a trip using an MTA service, and after we handed over the tool to the MTA we continued to monitor results via the website and data portal. The MTA pulled the plug on Rate Your Ride in 2016 but has announced plans to bring it back in late 2017.
Nationally, we have reviewed the Whoo's On Board? summary of rider survey results by TransitCenter, the Ridership Recipe by Transit Center, the Human Transit blog by Jarrett Walker, and Factors in Ridership by the Mineta Center.
We have boiled it down to five aspects of bus and train service that are most important to riders:
• Fast - people value time on buses or trains differently from time behind the wheel, but door-to-door travel time via transit must be close to what it would be for driving if it is to attract many users. On corridors that get congested during rush hour restricted lanes and signal priority can move buses and trains faster than traffic.
• Frequent - frequent buses and trains reduce wait times and as a result reduce overall trip times. They also provide freedom to people to depart and arrive when convenient as opposed to adhering to a schedule.
• Reliable - when Rate Your Ride participants reported problems with their transit experience, by far the issue most commonly cited was lateness. Conversely, those who stated that they had a positive experience cited "on time" performance as the reason.
• Access - transit doesn't get me where I need to go was the top reason given by Baltimore area residents for not using public transportation more often. Access to jobs, schools and services is a measure of how useful a transit system is.
• Walkability - Baltimore City compares favorably with many U.S. cities for walkability, but many workers commuting to mid-skill, family-supporting jobs outside the city are forced to walk long stretches with no sidewalks, unsafe street-crossings, and auto-oriented design to get from a bus stop or train station to the place of work.
Focusing on these five measures will tell us a lot about how effectively our public transportation system performs. Consider them as vital signs like blood pressure for the health of greater Baltimore.
At the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance our next step is to create an online dashboard where these five indicators can be monitored. The Transit Center has provided a grant to establish one. We look forward to working with partners, including the MTA, to track these. Watch our website and social media for updates.
President & CEO
The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance