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Metro Cities: Five ways to get more riders on board public transit

From increasing the price of parking metres to giving students incentives, there are a number of strategies that could work when transit agencies partner with city departments.

Unreliable service and packed buses have plagued the TTC in Toronto.

Torstar News Service

Unreliable service and packed buses have plagued the TTC in Toronto.

Many of the factors affecting transit ridership are not under control of transit departments, the key one being the rate of private automobile ownership, according to a 2016 Edmonton policy paper.

No city knows this like Los Angeles, where a half-cent sales tax increase was recently passed to fund transit maintenance and expansion. Its ridership has decreased by 17 per cent over the last five years while private automobile ownership has increased. A report released last week showed that areas around L.A. added 2.3 million people and 2.1 million vehicles from 2000 to 2015, compared to 1.8 million people and 456,000 vehicles the decade prior.

Two things are most valued by transit riders, according to the U.S. Transportation Research Board: not crashing, followed closely by reliability. Though reliable service won’t necessarily attract new riders, unreliable service will scare existing riders away. (Just look at the state of things in Toronto lately.)

That said, presuming cities want to create efficient ways to move many people, transit is a good bet. Here are some tools transit agencies, and their partners in other city departments, can focus on to attract new riders:

Lure the unusual suspects: A recent report on plummeting transit ridership in L.A. noted that about a third of riders use the system for daily commuting, but that population only accounts for two to three per cent of the region’s population. Getting even 1 out of 4 of those infrequent riders to ditch their car once every two weeks would boost annual ridership by 96 million.

Make it predictable: “Clockface” schedules, like a train departing 30 minutes after each hour, have been shown to increase ridership, according to a 2004 study from Washington’s Transportation Research Board.

Think of the children: Students often fall into a category transit planners called captive transit. Young people and low-earners tend not to have cars, and are therefore reliant on transit. Offering special routes and schedules to serve students as well as deals for students, like universal transit passes as part of post-secondary tuition, has been shown to increase ridership, as was the case in Edmonton.

Move in next door: A Toronto study shows when people live within one kilometre of a subway station they are more likely to take transit to work. So-called transit-oriented development aims to put more dense housing and other land uses, like employment and shopping, near existing transit.

Jack up parking metres: Studies show that reducing transit fares gives a temporary boost to ridership. But to really get people out of cars and onto the LRT, increase parking fares. Studies show that when subsidies prop up private cars, no amount of pro-transit policies can overcome that obstacle.

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