The one easy fix that can vastly improve public transit

And also help businesses.

It isn't cheap for cities to build and maintain public transportation infrastructure. There are many reasons for this reality. But why, then, do cities overlook one of the most important additions to transit services that improves service without more trains, buses, tracks or staff?

I'm talking, of course, about transit countdown clocks and other forms of real-time transit data like apps or websites that say when the next train, bus, or streetcar is scheduled to arrive at a particular stop. Studies show that transit riders who have access to real-time transit information not only perceive their wait as shorter than it actually is, but they spend less time waiting for transit than people who don't have access to real-time information.

In Boston, the 2012 addition of clocks that count down the time until the next train arrives in subway stations have made for happier passengers, with satisfaction up 15 percent. New York City had similar results when they started adding countdown clocks in 2010. 

But Boston businesses are also profiting from the simple addition. As The Boston Globe writes, "businesses have been cashing in on the clocks, too: Without fretting that a train is imminent, customers are more willing to cool their heels and enjoy the wait with a cup of joe or a doughnut in hand." 

With this in mind, the next step for cities with transit should be countdown clocks outside stations to maximize the benefits to nearby businesses. Who wants to wait in a dingy subway station for 20 minutes until the next train? Also, as Boston is beginning to do, it makes sense to add countdown clocks at bus stops, and other forms of transit where waiting is involved, near businesses.

It's especially good to know that countdown tech can improve satisfaction and reduce stress because one recent study showed that transit can have a negative impact on both. It found that people who take the train have higher anxiety levels than those who drive private vehicles and that people who ride the bus have lower levels of life satisfaction. 

But the ultimate goal here is for cities to attract more people to transit. In theory, if you can improve customer satisfaction, you'll improve ridership. But is that the case? We're not quite sure. As Eric Jaffe reports, some initial studies have suggested that real-time transit updates helped improve ridership, but "the current research literature doesn't address the question of whether real-time data increases ridership in any definitive way."

As more transit system adopt real-time transit update systems we'll probably get a better sense for how it impacts ridership over time. But for now transit agencies will just have to trust in the benefits of happy customers

Photo: Flickr/incendiarymind

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