A Lead Up To Better Transit Ridership

I got to thinking, a lot of ridership on transit, regardless of what seems to be at the root of the conversation, has nothing to do with the actual vehicle.  A large part of it has to do with the ease of use, flexibility, and other criteria.  Sure people like light rail, some go gaga over streetcars, and some hold out their passion for buses, but in the end if there is no vehicle when you want to, need to, or whimsically need to go where you are going you don’t ride transit.

So where does that leave us?  The question is simple, what criteria must be met in order to attain higher ridership?

Some of the current systems, features, and usability requirements for attracting ridership are obvious;

  • Timely:  A vehicle has to be frequent enough on a route to gain ridership.  If one can’t get to and from their origin and destination in a reasonable time then that really puts a damper on increasing ridership.
  • On-Schedule: Even more than frequent, a vehicle has to be on time.  If it doesn’t show up, then what is one supposed to do?  Hold it on faith that the vehicle might show up?  It doesn’t build up motivation to take transit if the vehicle doesn’t arrive when the promised arrival time is.

Thinking Out of The Transit Box

The other things that have really bumped up the ridership for a lot of routes, enabling people to schedule around routes that might have untimely or slightly off-schedule runs, is GPS based tracking.  TriMet (did it first – props), New Jersey Transit, King County Metro (Seattle), MUNI, and others now all have this tracking ability.  It has mitigated loosing ridership and has gained an untold number of riders.

Another feature that has bumped up ridership in certain areas is wireless Internet access.  On the Sound Transit System between Seattle and points north and south, the Sounder Trains have wireless access.  One can watch any train of the day go by packed with patrons, dozens of them working away on the laptops at the tables or even in their laps.  On the express buses Sound Transit has also had wireless for some time, which attracts a lot of the Microsoft, Boeing, and other technology workers.

These two features have attracted increases in transit ridership that otherwise, would not have been made.  But what else could transit agencies do to really gain ridership?  Especially today, with the financing difficulties, what could be done on the cheap.  GPS tracking isn’t too pricy nor is Internet access, but in today’s tight market its difficult even for these amenities to be purchased?

Please comment with any ideas you might have, I’d love to really get some new and inventive ideas out to the brass to implement.  In a following post I’ll have a collected set of ideas, plus will have some existing ideas and how to make them better (such as website enhancements).


  1. I think you nailed it with the timeliness. I live on one of the once-an-hour Trimet routes, and I know I’d use it more if it were available every 30 minutes. Otherwise, it seems I’m always very early or a little late if I use the bus.


  2. I think, first and foremost, many individuals that haven’t ever ridden public transportation have a perception about ‘the kind of people’ that ride. There’s a perception out there that public transportation is dirty, loud, sweaty, full of sketchy people, etc.

    While some certain bus lines during specific times of the day might indeed be a little scary, in the most part public transportation isn’t about any of the above. Sure, it might get hot during the summer… you might have someone on there that may not have showered in, I dunno, a week. But it certainly isn’t anything you wouldn’t encounter in other public spaces.

    I think the first thing TriMet needs to do is squash this perception. I ride the bus (if I’m not biking to work) during workplace commuting times. I see a lot of working professionals like myself taking public transportation. I think if someone who hasn’t ever been on MAX or a bus saw this, they might rethink the idea of perhaps taking public transportation.

    The point you brought up with GPS certainly helps; I know when I need to be out the door in the morning. And that’s pretty dang awesome.

    I think everyone knows that riding public transportation can help reduce expenses. But maybe really spelling it out (Car payment = $250. Monthly car insurance = $60. Gas monthly = $80. One all-zone TriMet pass = $86) might help those who might be in a crunch financially look into public transportation.

    Looking forward to hearing other people’s ideas!


  3. Speed, reasonable intervals (every 3 minutes on peak), smooth ride, fast boarding – no messing with paying/showing tickets to a driver, and fast & easy boarding for physically challenged, a clear easy-to-read map at every stop, and pinball machines inside the carriages 🙂


  4. "enabling people to schedule around routes that might have untimely or slightly off-schedule runs, is GPS based tracking. TriMet (did it first – props), "

    Unfortunately I don’t give TriMet any applause.

    Last Friday I found myself with my favorite Operator on the 12B line, stuck in traffic just before crossing I-5 into Tigard. She punched in on her BDS and a few moments later Dispatch called up. Our leader was about 500 feet in front of us, and the Dispatcher said she had no clue of any problems in Tigard.

    Hello? Our Leader is 500 feet IN FRONT OF US!!!

    TriMet has the technology but no idea how to use it. Just yesterday – TriMet was quick to e-mail me that one out of every three WES trains was not functional and would be bustituted…but when a bus delay occurs, TriMet is dead silent on the matter…it’s as if their heads are in the ground like an ostrich.

    That’s the problem. Lack of effective leadership and promoting their own system.

    You’re absolutely right that it has nothing to do with the type of vehicle; airlines for many years thought that passengers were biased in favor of jets over turbo-props, but what they found was that frequency – not plane type – is what drove ticket sales. Replace three daily 737s with six or seven turboprops and you got more passengers but with a slight decrease in seats (but your load factor also improved at the same time.)

    There are a few people that have their anti-bus attitudes and TriMet needs to not pander to those interests…TriMet likes to tout the "Total Transit System" but that system is largely a bus network. Seattle has been very successful building a bus system, and has over 1,000 new buses on order over the next few years. (In comparison, Portland has ONLY 600 buses for the entire metro area, excluding Clark County.) TriMet needs to sell the bus system. Making bus service "in your face" would go a long ways to selling the service…would you go to a dive bar that has no front door, no windows, no advertising? Or would you go to the flashy brew pub that has a prominent corner location, sponsors events, has contests and giveaways?

    Would you board transit at a fully improved stop with lighting, benches, Transit Tracker signs…or would you board on the side of the road in a drainage ditch with just a bus stop sign? Why is the Barbur Boulevard TC so popular and why do people DRIVE their cars to a park-and-ride, even if a bus is closer to their home? Why is the 94 more popular than the 12 – the 94 is every five minutes and the 12 is supposed to be every 15 but is frequently 20-30 minutes apart. Would you board knowing your vehicle WILL be air conditioned, or take a chance on a non-A/C vehicle? Would you board having free internet access, or not?

    Those are all questions that TriMet forces upon its riders…and bus riders almost always get the short end of the stick. No bus rider gets free Wi-Fi but WES riders do. 35% of buses don’t have air conditioning, but EVERY MAX, WES and Streetcar vehicle does. Very, very few bus stops have Transit Tracker signs. Just yesterday I saw a TriMet crew **REMOVE** a bus shelter at a busy PSU bus stop which has two Frequent Service lines serve it – is TriMet also removing MAX shelters?


  5. Just FYI Erik – King Cty Metro has even more buses without AC. Also if you look at population of PDX vs SEA that 1000 bus order vs 600 makes us more bus friendly, as we’re getting more per person in PDX than Seattle is per person. They need to buy at least about 1800 to match the quota.

    Anyway, not really trying to say TriMet is pro-bus, but just by those actions/numbers it appears TriMet’s actions have spoken rather loudly…

    So as far as those things go… and back to the topic of this entry.

    1. Zero buses should be without air conditioning.
    2. Diesel buses, in my not so humble opinion, need to shipped out of here and replaced with clean buses, trolley buses, or whatever. Anything besides the damned diesel buses. With the mall back in service and those hot days – when the diesel just seems to linger in the air – it was disgusting at best, and hellish at worst along the mall because of this.

    …and yes, TriMet absolutely does need to utilize the system it is charged with running at a much higher level of efficiency. The problems go all the way from TriMet Management, to their Union Management, and back around again… the two segments that are hurt worse are the drivers/operators and riders.


  6. "Also if you look at population of PDX vs SEA that 1000 bus order vs 600 makes us more bus friendly, as we’re getting more per person in PDX than Seattle is per person. They need to buy at least about 1800 to match the quota."

    But that’s 1,000 NEW buses, compared with Portland’s total fleet of 600. TriMet would have to have ON ORDER at least 200-300 buses – and TriMet has CANCELLED all bus orders. So that’s Seattle 1,000, Portland 0. And Seattle’s figures don’t include Community Transit, Everett Transit or Pierce Transit.

    As for buses without A/C – I’m pretty sure that as a percentage TriMet is still higher…but King County’s bus fleet page doesn’t state whether the fleets have A/C or not.

    "2. Diesel buses, in my not so humble opinion, need to shipped out of here and replaced with clean buses, trolley buses, or whatever. Anything besides the damned diesel buses. With the mall back in service and those hot days – when the diesel just seems to linger in the air – it was disgusting at best, and hellish at worst along the mall because of this."

    Again, I’m not sure how you can say Portland beats Seattle here. Seattle has 146 zero-emission trolleybuses which are powered by Seattle City Light’s hydroprojects – Seattle’s power supply is 90% hydropower, compared with Portland’s about 40%; Seattle has 236 hybrid-electric articulated buses (Portland – two 40′ hybrid electric buses). Seattle makes extensive use of articulated buses to move more people at once; something that Portland is against for completely illogical reasons (Fred Hansen cited in an op-ed rebuttal to me that light rail was more suitable; however how does MAX help the congested 12/94 corridor? How does MAX help the congested 9 route? If MAX existed that would be a fine argument but it doesn’t.) And Seattle still packs them in.

    Even Vancouver, BC is experimenting with fuel cell and gasoline electric hybrid vehicles…one would think that with Freightliner here in Portland, that we could use Freightliner’s partner Orion Bus and develop this technology right here and use it on our streets; but alas "it’s not rail, we don’t care". Vancouver, BC is leading technology and Seattle is growing ridership. Portland? Barely treading water with the status quo.


  7. On #2 I was just stating a way TriMet could kick up some ridership by getting rid of the noisy, nasty, stinky diesel buses. Seattle & most of the surrounding agencies already beat TriMet in this regards.

    As for the 600 vs 100, I thought you where saying TriMet had on order over the next X time 600 buses.

    As far as PDX beating SEA, it doesn’t really boil down to transit, it boils down to the people and the sprawl. Seattle is disturbing in its sprawl at best, Portland has a vitality that Seattle is still working diligently to capture. Just from the media write ups one can see this. New York loves us, disses Seattle regularly, so do other cities. Same goes for Seattle’s regular residents, who even in their local street rags often cites Portland as much more livable than Seattle.

    I obviously agree, I chose Portland over Seattle hands down for the same reasons.

    But anyway, we’ve diverged from the topic again.

    What would YOU think would be a good outside of the box way to increase ridership?


  8. I am going to take this and run with it. I have actually ridden just about every major transit system on the West Coast, used their websites, and of course made observations. I shall share some of my thoughts from these experiences and relate.

    Number 1! Ease of use to obtain information. TriMet does well in this for most things in online format. The Trip Planner is straight forward, links to all modes are on the top of the page. Transit Tracker is indeed a useful tool, most of the time, I figure where I need to go, and transit track the trip, not use a schedule. Some websites (related to your other post perhaps) are difficult to figure out, or are just not easy to navigate. Why is KCM Trip planner hiding behind 2 clicks? KCMs trip planner needs some work, it questions most destinations and addresses. San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area have incorporated close by transit agencies into one trip planner that will plan across one or all agencies into different areas (511.org and sdcommute.com). Secondly on this note, I have called from a street corner wanting to get someplace, in the bay area? Dial 511 (Always open), I got instant plans and was on a bus in less than 5 min! This system also provides recorded info about everyone, and you can get a live agent for trip planning or questions. KCM operates long phone hours, very convenient, TriMet lacks hard in this area, they run banker hours without Saturdays. Many agencies are getting on board with transit trackers, many thru NextBus, SF Muni is on with them, its handy, except in Subway stations. Google has also taken Transit to an awesome level, Google Maps on an iPhone works wonders, and trip planning on a home computer is easy with Google. I just wonder if they will integrate tracking soon, that would be huge!

    Number 2! Can I get to where I need to go easily and quickly. In TriMets case, I hate to say the answer is no. They lack express and limited stop lines. They rely on MAX to provide "Express" type service, but it doesn’t really serve that purpose. It takes me 65 min to get to PDX from home (S Waterfront) when it take me less than 20 min to drive (Almost 40 min is MAX time). I figure Transit should take no more than 2X the time to be effective. You could run an Express Bus to Hillsboro, Tanasbourne and Troutdale and beat all other modes. TriMet also lacks in the Crosstown department, And express Line from Tualatin to PDX via Ore City and Clackamas (Freeway Station) would serve valuable in my opinion. KCM has routes that crisscross everywhere, some run better than others, but some run express to a certain point then serve stops (Similar to 96), but getting to almost anywhere from anywhere is feasible, you don’t have to route thru DT in most cases. Here they want you to ride MAX, all the buses head to MAX, or you can park at MAX, Bus Park and Rides are Few and Far between. IF they want people to park and ride at something, Commuter Rail from Vancouver and Salem would be a good start, put MAX on hold and explore that! Seattle has LOADS of P&Rs that express buses serve during Rush hours, many have regular all day service as well. In the Bay Area, the biggest problem is none of the agencies "talk" to each other, You can not transfer to another agency with a transfer that does not belong to them. You pay each fare, every time. (There are some exceptions to Monthly passes). Getting around is expensive, Example, I rode SF Muni to CalTrain ($1.50 for 2 hours), CalTrain from SF to San Jose ($15 for a Day Pass), Transfered to VTA in San Jose ($5 Day Pass, they dont issue transfers) to get to my destination. $23 round trip for this, if they shared, it could be $15 for the CalTrain Day Ticket. A big turn off there, CalTrain and BART charge for parking as well, on top of the fare. My last thing is Fares. Are they easy to understand? TriMets, Yes and No, the Zone system confuses many. I also think all Transit fares should be in quarter increments, .30 is retarded, it really is. Seattles Zone system is straight forward (City boundary), but effective during rush hour only, which can catch you off guard. Theres a post about SmartCards in my blog, its the fare system of now. The no transfers idea rings well with me, many have gone to it, Seattle is going to it, its smart, but a SmartCard is smarter. Being on time is important, but theres a buffer in place I think, many people will tolerate it to some extent. Are the ones complaining the ones who take the trip that gets them there with 5 min to spare? Or only 3 min Transfer time, where there is no room for error? I think some of this may have to do with the expectations of the passenger, who sets the bar unreasonably high.

    Number 3! Equipment. SF Muni is sorta scary to ride, the buses dont seem clean, the Streetcars are always marked up and trashy, CalTrain and Sounder are nice. That type of service is aimed at commuters, not the drug dealing type. Fare Gates help the fare invasion situation, but in no way eliminates it. My last visit to SF was for 4 full days, My fare on Muni was checked 3 times (on the Streetcars/in Streetcar Stations)! CalTrain was checked twice in my 8 trips I took, Sounder has been twice in the over dozen times i have ridden. San Diego Trolley was 4 times in the 50 or more times. TriMet compares evenly to many of these. How does this relate back to equipment? The presence of fare checkers, lowers crime and keeps the trouble maker fare invaders out, making the system seem cleaner, and safer. A/C is a great feature, it gets (real) hot about 3 weeks out of the year here, not a BIG deal, but it matters in some cases, 2900s for example, you cant open the windows (Legally). In San Diego where ALL vehicles have A/C, its a bit more justified, they get rained on and chilly weather a lot less than we do. Lately, a Clean bus system is attractive to me, LA and San Diego has all CNG buses, SF has a huge electric system and now replacing old gas buses with Hybrids, Seattle is trying with huge Hybrid orders. Big systems are taking the steps, where is TriMet in all this…..its about saving money for MAX. Finally, Equipment that can handle the job, do you want to ride transit only to stand on a crowded bus the whole way? TriMets complete disregard for the publics call to order 60ft buses might not be helping. The 72 should be nothing but 60fts, 8,9,14,17,19,35,52,96 could use them during peak times on some runs. In San Diego the 60fts were ONLY on the 2 lines with their highest ridership, the 7 and (Entire line) 20. Some peak hour trips used them, but it along the same line as the 72 here.

    Number 4! Upgrades. To address the WiFi issue. This makes sense on long haul runs (Commuter rail, express buses). Seattle is the only really on board with this (Save for the problem prone WES). Sounder has WiFi, its not that great, its slow. I have yet to try it on an Express bus. All of ST’s Express equipment has very comfortable seats, high backs on the buses (even the Gilligs), and comfy on the Train. The Sounder tho, the seats are close together, no very comfy for a tall person like me. The ST Express buses have nice leg room, some have vents for air, and reading lights. Bikes are a growing items to used on transit, but its also becoming an issue. Bike storage is growing, but it needs to have incentives to use it, and free up the space on Light Rail. On Sounder there is only room for 4 bikes per car. On CalTrain, they have a half a car cleared out JUST for bikes. Catering to this community is important, as it is relative to the "Total Transit" picture. Some my find it frustrating and just ride the whole way (less ridership).

    In closing of my storytelling and rambling all over the place, You get what you pay for. You cut bus service and fail to make upgrades, it will deter business, you have routes that feed MAX when they can make better use doing other things (47,48). TriMet is a good system in Some aspects, but I can’t say they are my number 1. With all they do to the bus service, it knocks them down farther. But where is the perfect Transit System in the US? With the way the (State) government treats the systems, and they way some (Agencies) spend the money, its going to be a while before everyone is on board.


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