The Three Community Characteristics of Highly Successful Transit Systems

Think quick!  What are the most important elements of a really great transit system?!

IMG-20120709-00111Chances are if you just answered that in your head right now, you might have said things like: frequency, directness, reliability, easy fare payment, easy to use and understand information, consistency, comfort or safety.

Some of you might have answered “convenience,” which I would then have gotten you to define and you probably would have used a lot of words in the above list.

Other more esoteric folks might have answered with things such as “competes with the automobile,” or “provides essential community connection and mobility,” or maybe even “integrates with other forms of transportation to create healthy, resilient, livable communities.” (Oh, you keeners so near and dear my heart, you!)

And you know what, you would be right.  We could go into more detail, but all of the above things certainly define how optimally a transit system should look, feel and operate.  And of course land use density and population are important, too, since they will predict how effective and efficient a system will be, and its funding and governance structure will either hamstring it or enable it to soar.

However, based on a whole lot of years working with a whole lot of communities, I can tell you that there are three non-service related community characteristics that I believe have a HUGE impact on setting the scene for the success of a system over time.  Given similar investments in service or infrastructure, I believe that these are the three community conditions that enable some systems to excel and succeed over others.

It’s these community characteristics that I try to change and be mindful of when working with a community in order to move sustainable transportation forward, influence the level of investment and ensure that any service changes layered on top get the most bang for their buck.

I pass them on for you to think about and use in your own communities and transit systems.  I also counsel that you ignore them at your peril.

Three community characteristics of successful transit systems

Community Characteristic #1: Perception that the System is a Winner (Or, my “Bandwagon Theory of Ridership”)

  • What this means: Just like a winning hockey or baseball team gathers more fans, I’ve observed that a transit system that “appears to be winning” and is spoken of as a winner also exponentially gathers more riders beyond what you would think an expansion or service change might bring.  This intuitively likely makes sense to you: you are more likely to recommend a product to a friend or try it yourself if you get the sense that it is held in good regard and doing good things.  Transit is no different.
In some cases, one of the most important aspects of engagement and outreach is letting people know their system actually is actually performing pretty well to begin with.

In some cases, one of the most important aspects of engagement and outreach is letting people know their system is actually performing pretty well to begin with.

This probably seems like a no brainer but I’m always surprised at how many people don’t make this connection.  What can be especially damaging is when influential people in a community talk trash about their transit system and then wonder why no one is riding.  Whether an elected official, transit staff or a citizen, we all have a stake in our system’s “ownership” and perception.  Can you picture Steve Jobs starting a statement with “Well, the iPhone totally sucks…”?

If you want a transit system to do well, you need to build community support for the system and the degree to which people perceive it to be winning.  You also need to address the things that the larger community don’t think make sense.

  •   Key Actions to Do This:
    • Make sure your transit system leaders, elected officials and front line staff have the true facts about your system and coach them on the importance of speaking positively about it.  This doesn’t mean that they have to ignore the problems.  They just need to reframe their comments and speak to the value the system is already delivering.  Rather than “Service is horrible” or “Buses are empty” (which are great sound bites but often ludicrously untrue and unhelpful), they need to go for something more like “We’ve got 5,000 (or 500,000) people a day already using this service and we could take it to 7,000 (or 700,000) if we improved this….” or “For every hour of bus service we put on the road, 25 people are riding; we could get even more customers if we…”.
    • Pay attention to what non-riders know about your system and systematically address those high profile misconceptions and flaws.  While your existing riders will of course have a very accurate and detailed perception of your system, proportionally it’s likely the non-users in your community that drive the largest source of perception.  Because of this, when I work with a community one key thing I do is ask everyone I meet what they know about their system: my barista in the local cafe, my hotel clerk, people in line ahead of me, etc.  (Information from engagement, workshops and surveys adds to this more informal technique).
      • By knowing the larger community’s take on your system, you can make a list of the higher profile misconceptions that need to be addressed through your communications strategy or know which service improvements or policy changes should be considered.
      • In a lot of cases, these changes may not seem logically worth it but if everyone in town is talking about it, they likely are worth it in the long run.  For instance, if the general populace is hung up on a policy that seems to defy common sense or the fact that the system doesn’t serve Bob’s Chowder Barn and Pet Emporium, change the policy, throw some level of service to Bob’s, call it a strategic win, publicize the heck out of how well you listened and move on.

Community Characteristic #2: Integration with local economic development plans

  • What this means: Complementing #1, I’ve also noticed that transit ridership and community support seems to grow at a faster pace in communities that explicitly link transit to their economic development plans.  Again this may seem like a no brainer and also a bit chicken-and-egg (i.e. that the communities that value transit are also therefore more likely to be the ones that include it in their economic development plans to begin with).
  • Regardless, linking your transit system to your economic development plan has the following benefits:
    • Elected officials directly make the connection between investing in transit and accomplishing other larger community objectives, making it more likely they will provide the funds to actually improve service and that they will champion it (thereby also helping Characteristic #1).
    • It increases the chances that the business community will be aware of and support your system.  This group usually has some of the best capacity to make things happen in a city but also may have the biggest misconceptions of what transit is and does.  Having transit as part of the economic development process provides the opportunity to build new alliances and provide accurate information to this group, which in turn also helps with Characteristic #1.
    • It creates a stronger economic development plan: if you haven’t spoken to how people and goods will move within an economy, you’re not going to be developing much of anything.  Plus, transit is key to connecting people to jobs and customers to products and services: it’s already a vital tool and resource in your community, so think about how you can leverage it even further to accomplish your larger economic goals.
  •   Key Actions to Do This:
    • If your community is starting an economic development planning process, make sure that transportation representatives are at the table.  This includes not only groups that are key to regional travel (transit, bike organizations, the authority(s) in your area that govern the road/highway network), but also interregional providers (ferries, airport, intercity bus or rail), and pedestrian groups at the local scale.
    • In my own neighbourhood of Fernwood, B.C., some community members keen on revitalizing our urban village once proposed replacing the two main transit stops with four 2-hour parking spaces.  The parking spaces would have brought about 40-50 people per day to our core.  The transit stops already brought over 400.  Needless to say, this plan didn’t go through but if you are facing similar arguments in your own community, make sure you contact your local transit agency who should be able to provide you with similar stop-level passenger activity facts.

      If you’re a citizen commenting on an economic development process already underway, ensure that the lens of transportation–and most importantly, transportation choice–is well represented in the draft plan.  Be an advocate for your transit system and the diverse layers of movement we need to build in order to connect people and goods as demographics, land use and energy use evolve.
    • Know how transit relates to your strategy and explicitly draw the connection.
      • If your town is trying to leverage area post-secondary institutions, foster tourism or trumpet itself as a retirement destination, it should seem pretty logical that having a great transit system supports these goals and should be promoted along with them.
      • Remember, too, that transit is key for access to employment centres and attracting new employers to your area, particularly for jobs in emerging technology sectors where workers are less-enamored with last century’s two-cars-and-a-house-in-the-burbs lifestyle.
      • Finally, if you are looking at revitalizing an area–such as a downtown or neighbourhood hub–be very aware and promote the fact that successful places are people places.  By their very nature, transit stops bring people to an area and that should be celebrated and encouraged (through benches, shelters, art, landscaping and other amenities) not by taking those stops away.

Community Characteristic #3: Incremental Positive Momentum

  • What this means: Of the three community characteristics, I believe this one is the most important and helps drive the other two. What I mean by incremental positive momentum is that strategically your best way of turning a transit system around and moving it forward is by implementing a series of positive changes (which may relate to service, infrastructure, policy, or marketing) and showing how they all fit together.
  • CUI4IZwUYAAMs3yIn some cases, you will be trying to pull off a restructuring of a large part of a system and everything will need to be done at the same time.  However, in cases where there’s an ability to break a massive service change or expansion into smaller pieces, based on my experience you’re better off doing so.  Here’s why:
    • It will make your overall project more manageable and increase the chance of success since you can focus on getting each successive component right rather than taking on too much at the same time.  It will also then provide you with successive logical points where you can adjust things if need be as part of the next phase of the change.
    • It is more realistic from a staff and training perspective.  Unless its a transit line driven by robots, any service expansion you implement requires more transit operators.  There is a limit to how many people your organization can train and keep on standby until an implementation date.  Know that limit, implement within it.
    • Most importantly, it keeps your system consistently in the media.  Rather than one big combined service change/trip planner launch/infrastructure improvement/policy change that may hit your local media for a week and then keep your system off the radar for a year, breaking these pieces into strategic chunks will keep your system in the media in a consistent (hopefully) positive way and will make it seem like it’s really going places. This helps reinforce the fact that you are being responsive to customer needs and that your system is a winner (see #1) and that it is a key part of moving other community objectives forward (see #2).
  • Key Actions to Do This:
    • Create a transit system action plan over a 1-3 year period, plot out everything you want to accomplish and how it all works together and ensure that your decision makers, front line staff and customers are aware of and on board with it.  Keep describing what you want your system to look like, what you need and the steps to get there over and over (and over) again until everyone is sick of you and it starts to become reality.  Then tell ’em some more.
    • Ensure that anyone and everyone that will be involved in actually implementing any of these actions has been along for the ride in developing them as a group.  That is the only way the changes are going to be successful and you are going to get the buy in you need to pull them off.  It also will make sure that all of the different components within a system (service, infrastructure, marketing, policy) actually compliment and don’t work against each other.
    • Stay focussed and do your best to keep all the actions during this time aligned in a positive direction.  Like snakes and ladders, policy and service change decisions that are perceived to be negative by your community or don’t seem to reflect its wishes disrupt the momentum you are trying to create and work against your system’s long term success.  These “dissonant decisions”  in effect start to cancel out whatever positive perception has been created and can actually work to stall your system’s ridership growth or move it backwards.

The Bottom Line

Don’t get me wrong.  The quality and intuitiveness of service, schedule timing and integration with land use are all crucial (CRUCIAL!!!!) elements to a system’s success.  And these, of course, are usually crucially (CRUCIALLY!!!!!) driven by sustainable funding sources from all levels of government and a correctly-scaled and representative governance structure.

AND my experience has shown that it’s the above community characteristics that help drive a transit system’s long term success and which create the conditions to help advocate for and obtain that investment.   And best of all, you can start on them anytime.

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