Shaving the bear?

Post by Steven Dale

I recently came across a working paper titled Transit Riders’ Perception of Waiting Time and Stops Surrounding Environments. If you’re a transit nerd, you need to read it — it’s important work — but this is the gist.

Reducing wait times is one of the best ways to increase transit usage. However, people’s perception of waiting time for a transit vehicle is highly, highly subjective! So if we cannot reduce wait times, can we instead improve the environments around stations to influence people’s perception of wait times for the positive?

In short, if bus stops were more attractive would people be more willing to wait at them?

The researchers behind this paper seem to think so. The results of the paper “strongly support the research hypothesis that the surrounding environment of transit stops and stations affects transit user’s wait time perception . . . . For waits longer than 5 minutes, both air pollution and traffic awareness increase the overestimation of wait time. The presence of a lot of mature trees, however, reduces the wait time perception and even leads transit users to underestimate the wait times for waits longer than 5 minutes.”

That’s huge. The idea that lack of traffic and the presence of mature trees at a given transit stop will make people demonstrably underestimate wait times should give every transit planner pause. At the very least, it should cause them to reexamine models for how riders understand transit.

This is something we’ve spoken of many times before (here and here for example). People are not rational creatures. Our perception of time is relative to our emotional state of being. It’s why we all understand innately the phrase time flies when you’re having fun. Finally we have some research that demonstrates this.

On the flip side, meanwhile . . . .

While I fully support the research, the recommendations to improve transit stop attractiveness seem like what Seth Godin might call “bear shaving”. Named after a Japanese PSA that shows a little girl (adorably) shaving a polar bear to offset the impact of global warming, Godin uses this image as a metaphor for the common problem of policies designed to treat the symptom rather than the disease.

It’s a problem we’re all too familiar with in the urban environment. Too much traffic? Let’s install more traffic lights. It takes too long to board an airplane? Let’s board the plane by row numbers. Too much red tape? Let’s create a new department to deal with the red tape.

Wait times too long? Let’s make those waiting areas more pleasant.

The idea in and of itself is fine. But step back for a second and you realize that it’s simply shaving the bear. It’s not actually going to solve the problem. How do I know this? Simple.

Think about the last time you were in a doctor’s or dentist’s office. Now think about all the comfort you’re provided there. You’ve got an indoor, climate-controlled environment, a plush chair and reading material. You typically even have a fish tank to gawp at (for whatever reason).

Does any of this make you more accepting of your medical professional’s almost-certain tardiness? If anyone’s done the research, but it would be great to know just how many outdated copies of Sports Illustrated are required to offset the frustration caused by every minute your doctor’s late for an appointment.

Here’s an idea — how about just showing up on time?

Lagune-Reutler, Guthrie, Fan & Levinson (the authors of the paper) should be commended for their work. It’s fantastic to see the academic community finally unpacking the irrationality and subjectiveness in city building.

Yet, is it even remotely practical to implement the idea? As they themselves admit, there’s an inherent contradiction in their findings. Consider. Places requiring transit stops also require enough ridership to justify the transit’s existence. These locations are unlikely to be in low-traffic areas with mature trees and daisy-fresh air.

So here’s another idea: Let’s stop shaving the bear. Instead, how about we get rid of the wait times entirely and use a technology that has schedule-free, virtually on-demand, less than one minute wait times?

Just a thought.

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  1. If the transit runs reliable on schedule wait times at the start and the destination are not much an issue. Especially regular commuters will not need to wait longer than 2 minutes. Bur on interchanges you cannot avoid wait times and/or some walk to get from one transit mode to another. IMHO key is to make the interchanges as pleasing as possible. The need to provide short ways between the different lines as well as places to rest, shop, restaurants and clean toilets. Even we use the newest transit technologies we cannot avoid that passengers have to change lines(Only automated cars aka PRT could do so but have many other issues). So lets imagine a automated metro with a headway of 1 minute and a gondola line where every 20 second a gondola will leave. The meet at an interchange station. passengers still have to get from the underground gondola platform to the above ground gondola platform. Elevators, Escalators would be needed to provide easy access. Even tough there is almost no wait time we would still need some places to rest, just because groups of people often meet up an interchanges. So even with low headways an attractive station with nice surroundings will attract more riders,

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