How to Convince Transit Riders Their Wait Wasn’t So Bad

Plant trees.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Anyone who’s ever relied on public transportation knows that waiting can be the worst part. Even with apps that provide arrival estimates, riders can still find themselves at a loss—straining their eyes in hopes of seeing train lights in the distance, or furiously checking phones while wondering what on earth is holding up a delayed bus.

But a new study suggests that the feelings of frustration associated with waiting can differ significantly depending on how gross a station is, and that simple improvements could make that maddening wait time seem much shorter.

The paper’s authors, Marina Lagune-Reutler, Andrew Guthrie, Yingling Fan, and David Levinson, of the University of Minnesota, collected over 800 survey responses at 36 transit stops around the Twin Cities region, recording both how long the wait times were and how long the riders perceived them to be.

In general, they found that riders typically overestimate shorter wait times and underestimate longer wait times (i.e. riders who waited for about two minutes felt like they’d waited for five, but riders who waited for 10 minutes felt like they’d only stood around for nine.)

But that general principle was beholden to some pretty powerful external factors: Riders who waited at stops where there was lots of pollution and traffic significantly overestimated their wait times. The effect was especially pronounced for those who were waiting for longer than five minutes, with those who waited for their rides for 10 minutes in areas that they felt were noisier and dirtier reporting that they had waited for over 12 minutes. Researchers also found a simple mitigating factor: trees. According to the data, the presence of mature trees helped make wait times feel less painful, for both short and long waits, and even in areas where other negative factors were present.

Coping with tardy, inefficient, and dilapidated transit is the reality of commuters in many of America’s major metro areas. And in some places, things seem to be getting worse, not better. For instance train delays increased 45 percent between 2013 and 2014 in New York City. And in Washington D.C., delays increased by 2 percent during the same period.

The troubles of these systems are not a secret. Nevertheless it can still be incredibly difficult to raise money for improving public-transit infrastructure. Part of the problem is that historically, a pretty large share of Americans have used cars to get around. That means major improvements to public transit systems have taken a backseat to roads, which in turn makes public transportation a less efficient and appealing option for those who have other commuting options. The result is a vicious cycle, where the lack of investment discourages participation by more affluent residents who have the option of using other methods of transportation, which then leads to the argument that not enough people use public transportation to invest in significant infrastructure upgrades—leaving poorer residents to make due with woefully inadequate transit systems.

But the safety, cleanliness, and general improvement of public transportation is becoming more important, especially as the number of Americans relying on their cars for transportation stagnates after decades of climbing higher and higher.

Share of Americans Commuting by Car

According to Census data, about 85.5 percent of commuters drove to work in 2013, that’s actually down from more than 87 percent in 2000. Among the urban 25-to-29 population, car commutes declined 4 percentage points between 2006 and 2013, and use of public transportation has increased among this age demographic by nearly 2 percentage points during the same period.

That means that improving the experience of public transit could become a more mainstream issue. And while major infrastructure upgrades may take more time and money, improving the experience of public transportation could start with something as simple as sprucing up aging and dilapidated stops, increasing their safety, and adding trees and greenery. It might not make the wait shorter, but it’s a start.