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Why you need real-time transit information to enhance your TDM program

Posted by Jordan Griffin on 9/9/19, 5:19 PM

For people living in cities, getting to work is a daily decision. The rise of mobility options like bikeshares, scooters, and ridehailing companies have made this decision even more difficult. Commuting options outside of traditional public transportation have never been more abundant and accessible to people.

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However, just because infrastructure is in place and options are available doesn’t mean people are going to make the switch overnight. That’s where transportation demand management (TDM) comes into play — the actions developers and employers can take to help create a behavioral nudge for commuters. This can range from anything as simple as sending out flyers announcing a new shuttle service to something more complicated like implementing a vanpool program, but there’s one factor that’s more important than anything else: real-time information about all of it.

Knowing exactly when the next train is coming or where the nearest bikeshare is located can be the difference between deciding to take public transit vs. drive to work alone. Real-time transit information is a key factor in getting people in a seat that doesn’t have a steering wheel connected to it, and here’s why.

Trying something new

Trying new things is tough for most people, even when they know it has the potential to make their life easier. This is particularly true for public transit, which can have a reputation for not being the most reliable travel option. Cars provide a level of certainty, especially if people have been using them their entire lives. There are millions of questions to answer when adopting a new commute, including:

  • “Where do I go?”
  • “Should I take the bus or the metro?”
  • “What’s the best pass for me to use?”

These unknowns can drive any person crazy, and can ultimately lead them to default to an Uber or their own car to avoid having to figure out the best option. This fear doesn’t necessarily come from anything concrete; it comes from psychology! Inherently, people experience different forms of cognitive bias. The status quo bias, for example, is the reflex of defaulting to what’s familiar. People become attached to their routines and are disproportionately afraid of trying something new.

If people haven’t taken public transit in the past, they won’t be able to accurately think through whether it might actually be the best choice. With more accessibility to real-time information on timing, distance, and location of transit options, however, this resistance can be minimized and eventually eliminated.

Removing the hurdles

One of the biggest guessing games for commuters using public transit is, “When should I leave my house so I’m waiting as little as humanly possible?” No one wants to stand there waiting for the train for 15 minutes because they missed the last one by three seconds, especially if it’s cold or raining! Going through this routine over and over can start to wear on a person, and eventually drive them to change their commuting method.

Having access to real-time transit information tears down these barriers. If someone knows they have a 10-minute walk to the bus stop and they also know the bus comes in 11 minutes, they need to hustle. The opposite is also true: If someone knows they have 15 minutes until the next bus, they might actually finish their breakfast before leaving the apartment.

This doesn’t just apply to public transit, but for newer micromobility options as well. If there’s a bike dock three blocks from someone’s apartment and they know there are 10 bikes available, they won’t need to hurry and get there before the last one is taken. If there are no bikes available, knowing when the next bus or train comes provides a viable alternative. Without access to this information, it may not be worth walking in the direction of the bike station just to hope that something is available.

Another factor that has a huge impact on whether someone decides to take the bus is any past experiences they’ve had. If the first time you try to take the bus, you have no information about when it’s coming and end up waiting for 20 minutes, you might not be so apt to try it again in the future. However, if your first experience involves you walking right up to the bus stop as it arrives? You’ll be much more likely to consider taking the bus next time!

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Making real-time transit information available to everyone

There’s significant proof that real-time transit information actively increases transit ridership rates. Chicago’s daily bus ridership increased two percent when real-time information was available. This is true for New York’s buses as well, which saw a $5 million yearly revenue increase after providing real-time info to the public. When riders don’t have access to real-time information, they perceive the waiting time to be longer than it actually is, so providing this info makes people more likely to want to wait for the bus.

Because of this, governments and agencies are making it a priority to add this information to train platforms and bus stops. A breakthrough came in 2005, when Portland’s TriMet agency worked with Google to create the General Transit Specification Feed, or GTFS. Essentially, this is just a structure to show transit stops and times in a clean, orderly manner, resulting in the improvement of the way people we able to read and digest transit information. (We actually aggregate all available GTFS agencies in one place for public access, over at OpenMobilityData!)

Be on (real) time

The goal of transportation demand management (TDM) is to change the everyday commuting behaviors of employees. This means getting them to choose a mode that isn’t driving to work alone. When they have access to real-time transit information, they have a list of options they might not have considered before as well as everything they need to make a different choice.

Since its introduction, real-time transit information has made a real difference in how people choose to get to work. Public transit has a stigma of being unreliable, but when accurate, real-time information is provided, its perception improves significantly. Real-time information is an essential part of any transportation demand management program — if you’re not including it in yours, talk to us and let’s see how we can change that!


Key Takeaways:

  • Real-time information is necessary to making a behavioral change
  • Access to updated information to make informed decisions 
  • Work with TDM agencies to perfect your commute program
  • Optimize your information with us!

Topics: TDM, Workplace, Mobility, Employee Experience, Commuter Benefits