Suppport for mass transit is growing, as more people learn about the perilous costs of our carbon habit. Urban planners typically respond with a built-it-and-they-will-come attitude: Getting more people on buses, for example, is just a matter of buying more buses. But what if they problem is psychological?
Tom Vanderbilt, author of the excellent book Traffic, just attended a conference at the Transportation Research Board, and he brought back intriguing news: Portland installed a system that lets users track bus arrivals by cellphone; afterwards, people thought that service had improved, with more buses, and more of them on-time.
But outside the tracking system, nothing had changed. Nonetheless, the increase in satisfaction will presumably get more people riding the bus, which in turn would make the entire system more cost effective and viable in the long-term.
Vanderbilt notes that people waiting in lines often overestimate how long they've waited; Disney, by contrast, posts wait times for rides, so that people feel that the time passes more quickly. The easy lesson here would be that perception of quality matters just as much as actual quality, but that doesn't seem quite right in the case of bus transit. If you've ever lived in a city with spotty bus services, you know why: The uncertainty of waiting for a bus is enough by itself to turn people off of riding buses altogether. Personally, as a New Yorker, I can't count the number of times that I've said, "Well, I should probably take the bus or subway. But who knows how long that will take. Better get a cab." The situation is only more dire in places like Atlanta, where people that have never riden mass transit view the system as inherently unreliable.
Urban planners could (at least partly) squash that deterent simply by installing Portland's system. In other words, good public transportation is about both giving people more options, and giving them more information about how to weigh those options.