Public Transportation; You Know Why They Ride, But Don’t Forget Why They Stay?

by Joe Caruso

It’s a great time for public transportation.  Almost daily a system is reporting increased ridership in great part to $4.00 a gallon gasoline.  The ramp up of ridership has paralleled the increase in gas prices for a couple of years now, but the most recent high prices have been the point where transit is seeing the most converts come over from driving their cars.

So can we safely say that our newest customers are flocking to buses and trains to save money? Sure we can, but the real question to be answered is why are they staying?

Let’s go back to times of more stable gas prices.  Why did people use transit then?  An easy answer is that they had no other choice.  They were captives.   A few others may have chosen transit for a variety of reasons, and we considered those choice riders icing on the cake.

I’ve never liked that breakdown.  It’s too simplistic.  It is true that some portion of riders have no choice nearly one hundred percent of the time.  But what about a person who carpools three days a week and uses transit the other two days?  To what degree is that person a captive or choice rider?  Or how about a person of means who doesn’t have a way to get around other than transit because they have chosen that way?  Is that person now a captive now because of their choice?  Seems to me in both instances, those individuals are a lot of both.

What about the “green” person who is passionate about the environmental benefits that transit provides?  That’s what motivates them.

And there are those commuters who really dislike driving.  They get on board because it helps them avoid the hassles of traffic and parking, as well as the road rage.

All of these are good, valid reasons for people to begin riding, but then and now, why do they stay?

They stay for two basic reasons that are co-equal in importance: Convenience and Reliability.

Transit customers define convenience like this:  Transit is close to where I start my trip, close to where I end my trip and it runs when I need to travel.  Reliability is defined pretty much as:  I can count on transit to run the way it is supposed to run.

Realizing that those are the basic and underlying reasons why a customer uses transit is also the first step toward building a customer driven service organization.  You can’t build a first class service organization around the concept of captive riders.  You have to build it around service concepts that are blind to the degree of captive or choice.   It’s OK to let people think they are saving money or the environment, or avoiding the negative aspects of driving.  If that’s why they think they ride, then it is very likely that the transit organization is satisfying their more basic requirements of convenient and reliable service.
And that is why those customers are staying.

Joe Caruso is Senior Consultant for Brecon Hill Consulting.  He’s the former marketing director for the Milwaukee County Transit System (WI) and has over 33 years of transit marketing experience.  He welcomes your comments at

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