Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: How to Make Public Transit More Effective

In some form or another, public transportation exists almost everywhere in the world and all through the world they are presented in the same manner: buses, trains, subways, or some similar variant. So why is it some systems are used extensively — Tokyo averages 8 million passengers every day — while others struggle to make maintenance a worthwhile investment. The broad goals of public transit seem simple at first, enable large numbers of skilled workers to travel to their workplace from afar, create a timely schedule, and ensure the system is economically sound and efficient. These goals have often been accompanied by the mantra of “build it and they will come”; unfortunately it doesn’t happen as much as city developers would like.

With all of the advantages of public transport for the commuters, how is it they can be made to be more effective in attracting commuters and efficient in their operation?

Air conditioned bus stop in Dubai. ©Elvis Payne

Air conditioned bus stop in Dubai. ©Elvis Payne

Create an environment people want to spend time in:

Public transportation really isn’t appealing in its raw form; it’s hard to make a large industrial bus or train look aesthetically appealing while still on a budget. However, the bus or train stop itself can be made safer and more appealing without breaking the bank. Take the London Underground, one of the most used public transit systems in the world, and the hallways are covered in art and kept very clean. On the other hand New York’s subway system, one of the most extensive transit systems in the US, isn’t even in the top 10 for best transportation and it, for the most part, is very undecorated, industrial, and has little to create culture or community.

London has done a great job making their tube facilities attractive and giving them an environment of safety, friendliness, and it encourages people to use them. For bus stops this could be creating an area with seating, shelter, and solar bollards to provide a sustainable means of light and increasing the safety of the area. Maps of the route, live updates if possible, are a must to help encourage new commuters to use the system. There is only one chance for a first impression, but first impressions can be deceiving if they aren’t followed up by a good second impression on the interior of the vehicle.

Reinforce the first impression by creating a pleasant travel environment:

Not all systems have to go to the extent that Taipei, Taiwan has gone to with their MRT system. Touchscreens are expensive and can be replaced with maps/decals, but they are doing an excellent job of encouraging commuters to use their services. Their MRT system is kept clean through banning smoking, drinking, eating and chewing gum while in the station or on the train. Additionally, cellphone use is banned on the first and last coach of each train (who doesn’t hate a loud-talking cellphone user).

Not all of this is feasible for every system, but the Taipei has one other attribute to their name: they have been ranked first in the world for the past three years for reliability, safety and quality. The value of a person’s time is one of the main things that makes or breaks the use of public transit. If it is on time, consistently, then people are much more likely to use it, but if its schedule is constantly being changed or delayed, the satisfaction drops dramatically.

Build it and they will come, only if it’s available:

This is a dual pronged issue; public transit should not only be available to those within walking distance. Systems that are being developed/expanded should also have park and ride options for commuters who are looking to drive a few miles and then take the more affordable/green option of public transit.

Methods of transporting a bike are a must as well; with the increase expenses of fueling a car, cycling has seen a dramatic increase since 2000 as a primary means of transportation. However, not everyone is solely commuting on a bike; many take a hybrid approach and use public transit as a supplement to their cycling. Unfortunately, there are a lot of restrictions to bringing a bike on public transport, often it is only allowed for free during off-peak times or counter-peak travel. For emerging systems, increasing the ability to transport bikes as well as passengers would capture one of the largest non-traditional commuter populations in the world.

A well-constructed and executed public transport system can be a cities greatest asset, but a poorly constructed or maintained system can leech money away from other deserving services and programs. The thought process should no longer be ‘build it and they will come’ but should be modified to ‘build it so they want to be there’.

About Robert Dalton

Robert Dalton is an urbanist, cyclist, and all around sustainability enthusiast. When he's not writing or puttering around Portland on his bike, he enjoys spending time in his backyard garden.