Understanding Travel Decisions—A Human Perspective

Post by Steven Dale

Like many people of my generation, I put myself through two university degrees working in restaurants and bars. The last spot I ever worked at was a high-end Irish Pub in Toronto’s financial district.

Thankfully, the pub was located exactly 25 minutes’ walk from my apartment. I knew, because I’d meticulously timed it, measured it and shaved off every potential minute by finding every potential short-cut I could find—demonstrating the kind of meticulous attention to detail that makes us transit geeks so popular with the ladies.

The question then before I walked out my front door was whether to walk or to take transit.

Seems like a simple question, right? It wasn’t. Let me explain:

The most direct transit route from my apartment to the pub involved (in order of sequence of events):

  • a 2 minute journey from my front door to the streetcar stop;
  • an undetermined wait time for the streetcar;
  • a 6 minute streetcar trip;
  • a 2 minute transfer time from the streetcar to the subway;
  • an undetermined wait time for the subway;
  • a 4 minute subway ride;
  • a 2 minute journey from the subway to the pub.

You see the problem right away.

While the trip itself (let’s say the fixed journey time) was 16 minutes long, the wait times for the two vehicles in between were completely undetermined. Generally speaking, those wait times ranged any where from 1 minute to 10 minutes, and predicting them were nigh impossible.

That meant that my actual travel time by transit would be any where from 18 minutes to 36 minutes. Sure there were some situations where transit was a faster option, but that only occurred in 28% of all the possible wait time combinations.

Here’s the most interesting part: If I had to wait 8 minutes or more for either the streetcar or (not both) the subway, travelling by foot always yielded a shorter travel time. I know this because I built a spreadsheet to understand it for myself.

Assuming that an 8 minute wait time for any transit vehicle in Toronto is 50/50 proposition (at best) and given the $3.00 fare, is it any surprise then that I almost always walked?

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  1. If transit operates you can eliminate the first undetermined waiting time. Just leave two minutes before the streetcar arrives. It might be even possible to minimize the second time too. many Apps for smartphone provide this function already. they even show you if you can safe time by walking only the streetcar party and take the subway for the rest of the journey. With live data its possible to eliminate waiting time at the first stop even if the transit itself doesn't follow to a timetable.
  2. Matt the Engineer
    The other Matt is right in theory. And this is how people with low-frequency long-distance commutes handle the problem. Bus or ferry comes once an hour? Then you know exactly when it'll be there, and work your life around making sure you're there. I have had ferry-commuting friends that would stop a conversation mid-sentence to leave for the ferry. But that's not the preferred case. Those of us with 15 or 10 minute frequencies don't plan for our bus because we don't have to - and because there's a real penalty to planning your life down to the minute. For me, getting my son out of the house is an unpredictable process - knowing I have another 10 minutes to wait after I've gotten him dressed and ready to head out the door is completely useless, as is knowing we have to be out of the door in 2 minutes when he hasn't put his shoes on yet (it takes as long as it takes). For others, a rigid breakfast plan might be an option, but could you get ready each morning with a +-5 minute window? Using an app helps, but it's no replacement for good frequency.
  3. Agreed. Matt the First's point was something I'd considered discussing because over the years I spent at that apartment, the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) started adding that service. You'd send a text message and you'd get a text message back telling you when the next vehicle was. Two problems with this: What if you don't have free text messaging? Then suddenly you're paying on top of your three dollar fare. Second problem: Inevitably, you wind up sitting on your couch (or at least I did), texting ad nauseum until there were 3 minutes left and then dash out the door. So the wait time didn't actually disappear—it was simply shifted to your couch. Third (bonus) problem: So while my wait time was arguably more comfortable as I was in the comfort of my own home, that doesn't apply to any of the myriad of riders who are waiting for a transit vehicle en route from somewhere other than their home — they're still standing at the streetcar stop, with or without an app. The more I think about it, the high-frequency of things like gondolas make the most sense in these feeder, last-mile, connector situations.
  4. Trains, Trams and Busses are quite on time here in Switzerland. For commuting i do not need to wait longer than 1 Minute. since i optimized from from the first time my alarm rings to breakfast etc until my train leaves. Now most Apps use a Internet connection and WiFi is available at mist homes and many restaurants. Of yours you are 100% right when you say a more frequent servuce is better.But installing a gondola line would take at least ten years here. Smart apps can be introduced much faster and have a higher impact. One problem i discovered on an outing was that gondolas do not well integrate with trains. When the train arrived several hundred people went to the gondola. It then took over then minutes until we could board a gondola. and since all gondolas where full nobody could have boarded at the middle station during that time. On the way back you are required to take the gondola very early do not miss the train. sure this was for a mountain ride on Sunday. But urban gondolas will face similar problems if they connect existing transit. Gondolas can handle a steady flow of passengers very well but cannot cope with teh peak demands when they connect to systems with larger vehicles and headways
  5. Good points Matthias. There are several ways to "improve" this situation. System capacities must be built large enough to anticipate ridership growth. So during peak travel times where there are large passenger flows from connecting transit vehicles, boosting line speeds and adding more cabins into circulation may alleviate some congestion and reduce wait times. And in terms of mid-station boarding, depending on demands and other factors, station attendants must ensure that there are empty cabins or semi full cabins along the line. Of course, this doesn't completely solve all challenges, but in reality, any type of transport has trouble dealing with large peak flows, whether its a subway, bus, highways... really depends on the severity of the congestion and how much patience your riders have. However, one of the biggest advantages with CPT lies in its automation abilities. Line capacities, and thus higher cabin frequencies can be realized relatively simply without the need to hire more drivers, coordinate schedules etc etc.
  6. Enjoyed your post Steven. Very reassuring to know that I'm not the only person on the planet who gives such meticulous attention to what others would consider a mundane daily routine :-)

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