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The age old question of nature vs. nurture exists even in the world of public transit. We already know that the highest use of public transit exists in large, long-standing metropolitan cities. The question is this: Can agencies in younger cities do anything to nurture increased ridership, or is their success bound to their external surroundings?

A look at basic consumer theory gives some insight into transit usage. The theory states that a person consumes a good (in this case, rides the bus) when the positives of using it outweigh the costs of not using it. However, because perceived costs vary drastically from person to person when riding transit, this theory can be difficult to apply. For example, the positives and negatives involved in assessing transit depend on concerns such as:

• Where the bus is taking the rider
• How long they have to wait
• How far away they are from their stop
• Whether they have other transportation options available

Because every rider’s answer to these questions is different, generalizing costs (and consequently, the likelihood of riding transit) is no doubt a challenge.

What transit administrators think

So, what determines transit ridership? In the search for answers, transit administrators tend to focus on ridership effects related to nurture. According to past research*, five categories transit managers report affecting ridership include:

• Service improvements and adjustments
• Fare innovation and changes
• Marketing and information
• Planning approaches and partnerships
• Service quality and coordination

But what’s really happening?

According to Gooze, Watkins and Borning, the main influences of transit ridership typically come from factors outside of the agency’s control. Specifically:

• Regional geography (total population, population density, geographic land area, and regional location)
• Metropolitan economy (median household income)
• Population characteristics
• Auto and highway system characteristics (non-transit/non single occupancy vehicle trips, including carpool, walking, biking, etc.)

Although there is little agencies can do to alter these external circumstance, internal policies surrounding fares and frequency can make significant differences (in fact, they have the potential to double—or halve—ridership numbers). Frequent service draws passengers in, and high fares drive them away. So, establishing affordable, frequent service is vital to the success of a transit agency.

What about marketing?

While these findings are significant, we think an important step is missing. Even if you have the highest frequency of service and the lowest fares, they won’t do you any good unless people know about them! Establishing a marketing and communication plan to alert current and potential riders of the helpful policies you have in place is crucial for increasing ridership. Take a look at our blog “3 Steps Toward Better Communication with Riders” for ideas on how to best get the word out to current and potential riders about your fares and frequency of service.

Taylor, B. D. ; Miller, D. ; Iseki, H. & Fink, C., 2009. Nature and/or nurture?: analyzing the determinants of transit ridership across us urbanized areas. Transportation Research, (43) 60-77.
*(Abdel-Aty & Jovanis, 1995; Brown et al, 2001; Dueker et al., 1998; Jenks, 1995, 1998; Sale, 1976).