7 min read

Growing ridership to make public transit the mode of choice

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Cars and congestion are a constant in most U.S. metro areas. In L.A. County, for example, car ownership is outpacing population growth and the average motorist drives 9.3 miles per day. Most of these trips are between two and four miles – meaning they could often be done by walking or biking.

For longer trips, public transit has the potential to ensure residents in L.A. (and elsewhere) can get around faster, more comfortably, and without gridlock. Even though the benefits of public transit have been established and its various modes accepted as safe, sustainable, and a key tool in fighting climate change - transit use in the county is still below pre-pandemic levels. Agencies are also faced with long-term funding issues caused by a pandemic-era decline in ridership and a slow return of passengers. How can we, as agencies and operating partners, grow ridership and revenue to create more resilient transit networks?

The need for resilient transit is urgent

Getting more people onto public transit in traditionally car-centric regions is not only a financial imperative for agencies, but also a key means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving public safety. Riding public transit reduces CO2 emissions by 45% compared with driving alone – which will be further improved by many regions' decarbonization plans - like L.A.’s goal to electrify 100 percent of its bus fleet. Similarly, public safety plays an important role in transportation safety because it is ten times safer than traveling by car, and metro areas with higher public transportation use have lower traffic fatality rates. Realizing public transit’s safety benefits is especially important as traffic fatalities in most categories are dramatically increasing across the United States. In L.A., there were more than 300 traffic deaths in 2022.

To encourage mode shift – that is incentivizing people to opt for buses, trains, and trams versus a car – requires transit to be competitive. It is already competitive in price by most measures, but it also needs to be convenient, safe and comfortable, fast, and reliable. Further, potential riders need to know about services and their advantages compared to their own car and driving.

But first, we must get the basics right

To retain existing riders and ​​attract new ones, transit systems must be focused on maximizing safety, frequency, and reliability as the foundation for being competitive with private transportation. System signage, arrival/departure information, ease of trip planning, fares, and integrating various modes all play important roles, too, in encouraging the adoption of transit.

Good service leads to people spreading the word about transit and bringing their friends and family next time, increasing demand for even more service. Conversely, inconsistent and confusing service suppresses ridership to those who have no other alternatives. Under-utilized systems are then taken advantage of by those who exhibit antisocial behaviors and criminal activity. Quickly, a negative feedback loop emerges that further reduces ridership. Left unchecked, systems may resort to service cuts to compensate for lost fare revenue – a blunt budgeting tool that should be avoided.

Once agencies have in place the fundamentals of frequency, reliability, and safety, they should explore growth opportunities and look for ways to attract new riders. In the next sections, we explore the “how.”

Marketing: learning from other sectors

Thanks to advances in technology, marketing in today’s world looks very different than it did a decade ago. From targeted online digital ads to influencer marketing, companies in other industries are using new ways to reach customers and are doing so with ever-increasing precision to their customer archetypes.

Transit agencies can take a cue from these initiatives and improve the way in which they go about advertising.

This starts with developing rider personas and better understanding your passengers’ preferences. We’re all very familiar with the commuter persona: following a traditional 9-5 workday pattern, these passengers may be more comfortable paying upfront for a monthly pass. But what about leisure travelers, shift workers, infrequent users, families, and retired individuals?

Transit executives have long understood that all types of riders use transit and that it can serve as a broad-based solution to meet everyone’s needs. But it’s important to remember that this “transit is for everyone” mentality is not mutually exclusive with a more refined focus on where opportunities for ridership growth lie.

Understanding what riders are looking for, what is keeping non-riders away, and where missed opportunities for increased ridership lie is crucial to boosting ridership. Appealing to frequent weekday riders, infrequent weekday riders, and weekend riders, for example, will all require different strategies. These understandings in turn enable more fine-tuned decision-making on advertising strategies, service expansions, and long-term planning.

Better meeting a range of passengers' needs may include more frequent "off-peak" service or expanding weekend ridership. We've seen how expanding these offerings has worked elsewhere, such as Boston's Commuter Rail, PRTC's OmniRide, and Greensboro, North Carolina. Most transit professionals and advocates are familiar with the concept of the death spiral: cutting service as a means to save costs, which in turn leads to diminished ridership and further reduced revenues. This means the inverse should be true: a growth spiral where increased service attracts more riders, as evidenced by the examples previously listed. 

Creative fare structures and new technology

Fares are a fundamental aspect of transportation, but they often present a barrier to new riders due to confusing structures, antiquated technology, or upfront costs. To help with this, some systems, like the MBTA, are even introducing perks like “one more trip protection” which would allow pass holders to take a trip even if their account balance is not enough.

Fare policies need to be easy to understand and customizable so that they meet the diverse needs of passengers, from tourists who take many trips in a short span of time, to commuters who have a fixed schedule, to infrequent riders who need flexibility. Consider this: a family of four might opt to drive and pay for parking if taking transit requires a full fares need to be purchased for each rider. This can be costly, confusing, and time-consuming.

Open-loop payments can help reduce these barriers to entry for new and infrequent riders and should be implemented where possible. Using an existing credit card eliminates the hassle and cost of buying a physical or virtual pass. And most of all, it’s intuitive, especially for younger riders.

Across France, digital ticketing (e.g. tap-and-go mobile payments, or m-tickets) has grown from 3 percent of all tickets in 2018 to more than 20 percent in 2021.

Creative fare options, like bundling rider services with parking, will play an important role in achieving the level of customization and convenience passengers now expect. This needs to be tied back to rider archetypes in order to deliver better value to riders. Weekday commuters may be excited by a parking and riding bundle, but college students and young adults might be more likely to benefit from discounted late-night service.

Other technology-driven initiatives, like rewards programs, can play a role in agencies’ overall marketing strategy. Offering riders points or other perks provide an incentive to keep using transit. Plus, it facilitates better data collection that can be used to develop rider-friendly tools, like individualized tracking of the carbon emissions riders save by choosing transit.

$10 Weekends - Mass By Train

Above: an example advertisement for "$10 weekends" which allows passengers to use commuter rail all weekend across all zones and lines. The new fare was introduced in 2018, and weekend ridership has continued to grow since.

Expanded service offerings and partnerships

People’s mobility needs – where, when, and how they want to get from point A to point B – have changed since the pandemic started and will continue to change in years to come. Expanding service and ensuring it aligns with current mobility needs is key to growing ridership for non-commuters and other new riders.

Typically, transit systems offer between 50 percent and 75 percent of weekday service levels on the weekends. While it’s true that weekend ridership across most modes will likely be less than weekdays, there’s evidence to show that there is latent demand for more weekend frequency and with service patterns that better meet weekend users’ needs.

Weekend and late-night ridership are often overlooked but are key to public transit’s success in years to come. This stems in part from the fixed costs of infrastructure, which means that expanding the service is often less than you might expect. Service and maintenance will need to occur regardless and their costs do not always rise proportionately with the level of service offered. Utilities still need to be paid, as do staff with guaranteed hourly minimums and benefits. All of this means that adding service is often a good financial investment for agencies: more riders and more fares without the same costs of adding a new line or buying more rolling stock.

Looking forward

Even though growing ridership is a formidable challenge, especially for traditionally car-dependent metropolitan areas, vision inspires confidence. When we give up on public transit, we create a cycle that further deepens agencies’ ridership woes.

We also know that geographically dispersed places can make progress, even if their transit systems will look different from more densely packed cities. Take London, for example. It’s only 20 percent bigger than the city of L.A. in terms of land area, but more than double the population. Yet, in London, more than 8 million trips are taken on bus and subway lines per day, versus an estimated 6 million journeys by car, according to Transport for London. In LA, fewer than one million trips are taken per day on bus and subway. If London can achieve these numbers, why not any American metropolis?

The fundamentals of frequency and reliability service will look similar across agencies and cities, but growth opportunities will vary more significantly by communities’ mobility needs. It is essential that systems continue to make progress on ridership and prove to the public and policymakers that the health of our cities is dependent on successful transit systems.

Embracing an approach centered on the basics with an eye towards marketing, creative fares, new technology, and expanded service offers is agencies’ best chance to make this progress and not only meet pre-Covid ridership levels but surpass them.