#ChoosePublicTransport: Driving Modal Shift

The Trapeze Team | September 16, 2015

We all know traffic congestion is an increasing problem. London is the most congested city in Europe (followed closely by Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool), and on the A217 alone, drivers spend 139 hours a year gridlocked in traffic!1

As such issues escalate we are seeing increased recognition that investment in public transport is the solution to rapid population growth and urban development. Is it time to #ChoosePublicTransport instead of the private car?2

Twitter logo and hashtag

The arguments for seem obvious: Public transport is far more efficient in terms of carrying and moving people around on their journeys – as this clever GIF from The Atlantic shows.3

However, experience tells us that simply adding more bus services may not be able to get more people to choose public transport. But why is this? To find out, let’s first think about some of the factors that influence people’s choice of transport mode…

How do passengers select their best transport option?

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that there are a number of factors outside the control of public transport authorities and organisations that play a critical role in influencing people as to the choice of transport mode they make. Indeed, these are discussed in detail in this article in Longitudes.4

Perhaps the most obvious ‘non-transport’ factor is density. Just as Alain Bertaud, a former employee at the World Bank, pointed out in this study, density is the primary reason why 30% of daily trips are carried out by public transport in Barcelona, but only 4% in Atlanta.5

Because Barcelona is 30 times denser than Atlanta, it is much easier for Barcelona’s transport authorities to establish public transport routes that meet the needs of residents. When the travelling public can easily access modes of transport that take them where they need to go – and quickly – they are more likely to use that mode of transport.

This partly links to another key factor – accessibility. Yet it would be a mistake to think that, just because a city has a high density, it also has easy-to-access public transport routes that can meet the travel needs of residents. To illustrate, consider the examples of Beijing and London. While Beijing has a much higher population density than London, its public transport mode share is much less.

According to a World Bank case study, the reason is that Beijing’s public transport terminuses – bus stops and metro lines – are usually placed more than a twenty minute walk away from places of work.6 Unlike in London, where people’s jobs can be reached far more quickly after getting off at a tube station or bus stop.

The walking element here is actually another important factor that can influence transport decisions. A detailed study from researchers at MIT found that there were some bus stops used by people almost a kilometre away, who would walk simply to use the public transport service.7 Yet there were also bus stops that people refused to walk even 100 metres to use.

The reason for this, quite simply, was that the bus stops which people avoided were located on streets or areas that were less pleasant than those people would walk 900 metres to use. They were usually on narrow poorly maintained sidewalks, without any trees beside wide roads. By contrast, the popular bus stops were on wide, well-maintained pavements beside narrow streets and lined with large, pleasant looking trees.

So, what can we do?

Given that these non-transport factors sound like a job for urban developers and planners it might be tempting to conclude that there is little bus and train industry professionals can do to make public transport more popular – but this isn’t the case.

Working closely with urban developers and city planners is obviously a key factor, as we look to highlight the importance of accessible public transport, with more attractive, denser urban environments. And here it’s not just public transport that can benefit from designing our cities in this way.

As Al Gore pointed out at the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, redesigning our cities to create dense urban spaces can eliminate the need for cars, and significantly decrease carbon emissions.8 In the very necessary fight against man-made climate change (or “catastrophic climate breakdown”, if you prefer George Monbiot’s less euphemistic terminology), such considerations must be taken into account.9

To return to the Barcelona – Atlanta comparison again, despite Barcelona having a slightly higher population, the city produces just over a tenth of the US city’s transport carbon emissions .10 This is purely down to the lower use of the private car, and greater use of public transport. If there was ever a convincing reason to invest in city models that promote public transport as the most logical transport mode of choice, this could be it.

Yet beyond the sweeping changes, there are also smaller, incremental changes that can be made to attract people to public transport – and, in particular, buses.

Trees and technology

A first step here relates to bus stops and terminals. It is possible to make these spaces far more attractive to passengers through two simple methods: trees and technology.

Let’s break this down a bit further. First of all, as this CityLab article notes, “planting a few trees around a bus stop” can make waiting for the bus seem shorter, and “offers local authorities an opportunity to significantly improve users’ wait time perception,” making the entire experience more pleasant.11 As we saw in the MIT study, a pleasant and attractive environment can encourage people to flock to bus stops they like, so this suggests it is possible to make public transport more popular simply by making our bus stops look nicer.

On the second point, it’s actually quite well known that technology can make public transport more attractive and pleasant. Again, real-time passenger information at bus stops can make waiting for buses feel shorter – in much the same way trees can.12 Such technology has also been proven to attract passengers and increase ridership, too.13

But technology that has the potential to make public transport more popular goes beyond the bus stop, of course. We know the potentially significant benefits of making Wi-Fi available to bus passengers can have, for example.14 And while this is a more outwardly obvious example, there are also other areas technology can help, albeit more subtly.

For instance, technology that improves and supports driver training can also help make public transport more popular.15 This is because perceptions of buses can be significantly impacted by the driver: Positive, welcoming individuals who are also good drivers encourage people to use the bus more frequently – whereas a single bad experience of poor driver behaviour or dangerous driving can dissuade passengers from using the bus, even stopping them from ever using the bus again.

Of course, technology isn’t just about software or IT systems. It’s also about utilising modern engineering technology, to build modern buses and trains that can attract new users. As we discuss in this article, modern buses, such as the new Enviro 400 MMCs, have been reviewed very positively by users.16

The general look and quality of the vehicles is therefore an important aspect here. Just think of this study by the Scottish Government, which found that newer buses were viewed more positively by passengers because they looked modern and were easier to get on and off; whereas older buses, described as looking ‘run down’ and being ‘wee rickety things’, were viewed as unsafe, unreliable and not user friendly.17

Sharing ideas

Ultimately, there’s no one clear way to making public transport more popular. Not only are there a multitude of different factors to consider, there are also numerous different ideas – many of which are equally valid and important.

And, of course, different organisations, different commentators and different people will bring new ideas to the table. For example, this article suggests: “Why not modify a bus to deliver a connection to each seat for either Internet activity, or music, or TV […] why not have themed ‘party buses’ every Friday for people wanting to celebrate the end of the working week and the start of the weekend?”18

Fresh ideas can take us as an industry in new and interesting directions. So, more than simply brainstorming ideas individually, it is clearly important to communicate with and share ideas across the industry – and indeed, across the divide between public transport operator and public transport user. Consultation with passengers will be just as important as meeting other industry experts at conferences and other trade shows and events .19

This is why we run our own annual user conference – because such events encourage mutually beneficial collaboration and sharing of ideas that can revolutionise the way we think about transport.

By sharing ideas, we can uncover innovative solutions and ways to make public transport popular, and encourage all members of the public to #ChoosePublicTransport.

But what do you think? Do you have any ideas for ways we could make public transport more popular? Tweet us your ideas at @TrapezeGroupUK, using the hashtag #ChoosePublicTransport.


  1. WOOD, V., “London is named the most congested city in Europe” The Telegraph
  2. “A world without cars?” Trapeze
  3. THOMPSON, D., “The case against cars in 1 utterly entrancing GIF” The Atlantic
  4. FANG, K., “Making public transit popular” Longitudes
  5. BERTAUD, A., “The spatial organisation of cities: deliberate outcome or unforeseen consequence?”
  6. FANG, K., “Urban accessibility planning support systems, with a case study in Wuhan, China” World Bank
  7. JIANG, Y., ZEGRAS, C, P., and MEHNDIRATTA, S., “Walk the line: station context, corridor type and bus rapid transit walk access in Jinan, China” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dept of Urban Studies and Planning
  8. EDWARDS, J., “There’s a plan floating around Davos to spend $90 trillion redesigning all the cities so they don’t need cars” Business Insider UK
  9. MONBIOT, G., “Climate change? Try catastrophic climate breakdown” The Guardian
  10. “Al Gore thinks we should spend $90 trn designing cars out of cities” CityMetric
  11. JAFFE, E., “Trees can make waiting for the bus feel shorter” CityLab
  12. BADGER, E., “How to make waiting for the bus feel much, much shorter” CityLab
  13. “RTPI increases ridership! Who knew?!” Trapeze
  14. “Saving lives with on-board Wi-Fi, one journey at a time” Trapeze
  15. “NOVUS DT explained” Trapeze
  16. ADNEY, P., “The image of the bus: time for an extreme makeover?” Trapeze
  17. “Understanding why some people do not use buses” The Scottish Government
  18. “How to get more people to use public transportation” HubPages
  19. ADNEY, P., “A little more conversation” Trapeze

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About The Trapeze Team

The Trapeze Team are here to bring you news and information from Trapeze Group (UK) and the public transportation industry.