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Study: Transit amenities affect perceived wait times

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: September 4, 2014 - 4:23 PM

A simple shelter can make the wait for a Twin Cities bus feel shorter than it actually is, based on new research from the University of Minnesota.

The study of 822 bus and train riders sought to gauge the impact that amenities – such as shelters, schedules and benches – have on perceived wait times. Through observations and interviews, researchers found that riders tend to overestimate how long they waited for their ride, and the presence of certain amenities makes a difference.  

Shelters had the most pronounced effect, particularly for shorter waits. A five-minute wait time felt like just 3.2 minutes for riders who had access to shelters. Both simple and “premium” shelters produced similar results.

“That’s actually a very good thing, because this amenity shortens people’s estimation of waiting time,” said Professor Yingling Fan, the principal investigator on the project. Shelters appear to make less of a difference after 10 minutes, though few respondents at shelters waited that long.

Posted schedules had an opposite effect. For shorter waits, they caused people to overestimate how long they had been standing at the stop. After 10 minutes, however, people at stops with posted schedules start to underestimate the amount of time they have been waiting (10 minutes seems like 8.5 minutes).

Early in their wait, “[the rider] keeps looking at his watch, and you can imagine a scenario where the posted schedule actually reminds him of the fact that the train isn’t here yet,” Fan said. “For a trip with a longer waiting time…now the posted schedule serves as an assurance that the train will be here.”

The study concludes that posted schedules are more effective at low-frequency stops, while high-frequency bus and light rail routes could benefit from merely posting the time between arrivals.

Route maps, a rarity at Twin Cities bus stops, also had a statistically significant impact in reducing rider perceptions of wait times. Another amenity studied, a bus bench, was only significant during longer waits, however.

“It actually makes sense…because for trips with a shorter waiting time, benches are not that important,” Fan said.

Confusingly, the presence of real-time arrival information did not have a significant impact on rider perceptions, according to the study. That contradicts previous research about real-time information. Fan said this was because most real-time information is located at “premium shelters,” which was another amenity category altogether.

“This model doesn’t necessarily mean that real-time information signs are not important,” Fan said.

In its written conclusion, the study states that there is "the potential for transit stations and stops and the waiting environments they create to significantly influence passengers' perceptions of waiting time under certain circumstances." The study did not analyze whether train and bus riders perceive their waits differently.

Transit amenities have been the subject of two recent Star Tribune stories. A July analysis showed that many high ridership stops in the Twin Cities lack bus shelters despite meeting qualifications – particularly along two north Minneapolis corridors and Franklin Avenue. Another story, published on Wednesday, found that north Minneapolis has far fewer bus benches than other high ridership areas of the city.

“Metro Transit was only recently provided with a summary of this study’s findings,” Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr said in a statement. “Staff will further review the research to determine how it could apply to the agency’s plans to improve boarding-area amenities in the future.”

Kerr added that the research was well-received and staff at the agency will be engaging with the researchers to learn more.

The study, which will be presented at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board this January, has not yet been peer reviewed. The main researcher on the project was Andy Guthrie, a research fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Above photo courtesy of Metro Transit.

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