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Rider experience must be part of the public transit equation

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Understanding the wide range of commuter needs — like not wanting to see sexual ads when children are present — is crucial in creating an enjoyable public transit experience. (Robyn Purchia/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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On Thanksgiving, San Francisco resident Carmel Graham took her two young girls on a cable car ride. She was excited to experience a bit of nostalgia and envisioned snapping family pictures on the iconic cars. But things weren’t quite as she hoped …

Plastered to the side of her ride was a bright pink advertisement for mascara: “BETTER THAN SEX.”

“I was disappointed this lovely, 100-year-old cable car had this advertisement,” Graham told me. “And, c’mon, how is mascara better than sex?”

Graham isn’t the first to express displeasure over public transit advertisements. Last month, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency banned cannabis ads after the local Chinese community voiced concern over exposing young passengers to a substance-friendly message. Earlier this year, the SFMTA also banned certain political advertisements.

Some San Franciscans may disagree with these opinions and bans, but creating an enjoyable public transit experience for everyone is important.

In 2016, The City was rated as having the third worst traffic congestion in the nation, according to the SFMTA. The transit agency blamed much of the increase to the huge rise in Uber and Lyft cars. More traffic also leads to more pollution, especially as ride-hail services replace San Francisco’s fuel-efficient taxis.

If city leaders want clearer streets and cleaner air, they should help San Franciscans make better transit decisions. This involves not just understanding commuters’ needs, but also their wants. As Graham’s experience highlights, choosing public transit isn’t always motivated by cost, convenience or speed; some people want a fun and safe experience. New data explaining the motivations behind people’s transit decisions can help agencies make improvements.

“We are just at the beginning of a time when travel management tools will enable us to evaluate our travel options and create experiences more tailored to them,” Michael Critelli, a public transit advocate and ex-CEO of Pitney Bowes, told me.

Critelli and data analyst Abir Bhattacharyya have delved into commuters’ psychology and developed a tool to help governments improve transit systems. For two years, Bhattacharyya analyzed transit-related discussion sites and conducted surveys. He also reviewed Uber and Lyft data. The extensive information he gathered reveals trends on where, when and why commuters decide to hail a Lyft instead of hop on a bus.

For example, in the pre-ride-hail era, about 10 percent of people traveled by taxi from the Caltrain stop on Fourth and Townsend to SoMa and South Beach neighborhoods. Now, about 41 percent spend approximately $8 — roughly $5.25 more than bus fare — to travel to the same areas in an UberX or Lyft. Commuters are willing to spend the extra money to save time, feel safer and have a more enjoyable ride.

According to Bhattacharyya’s surveys, Uber and Lyft passengers can socialize and avoid “dealing with homeless people.” Girls have also admitted to using ride-hail services because they can avoid getting harassed by random men on public transit. These services feel more fun and safer to passengers.

After the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency charged with regulating Uber and Lyft, tightened rules on driver background checks last month, more people may feel like ride-hail services are the safer choice.

“In every life decision, the human factor comes into play,” Bhattacharyya told me. “In other industries, we’ve used methodologies to understand those factors. But the transportation industry is 40 years behind.”

While BART and the SFMTA have studied travelers’ decisions, they haven’t delved too deeply into why commuters choose Uber and Lyft. The SFMTA’s annual transit survey, for example, found ride-hail services have grown quite strongly, primarily among young (under age 35), high-income residents of dense, inner San Francisco neighborhoods. But the report didn’t answer what needs and wants fueled growth among this demographic.

If city leaders want to clear the roads and clean the air, they need to think outside the red bus lane. The whole experience — advertisements, safety, fun, cost, convenience and speed — influences San Franciscans’ willingness to use public transit. Better understanding these needs and desires can help San Francisco make the small, specific changes that will have a big impact on our city.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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