This report – Market Research on Real Time Transit Information Needs and Users’ Expectations – examines how riders see the importance of real time transit information (RTTI) and its role in making transit more attractive, in particular in Arlington County, Va.
The report examines online arrival prediction tools, phone-based arrival prediction tools (SMS and call centers), BusFinder at Arlington’s ART bus stops, and LED signs/LCD monitors at bus stops and rail stations.
Extensive focus groups and a panel survey were conducted to gain insight on how and where RTTI fits into the transit experience and provide suggestions for Arlington County as it reflects on next steps in providing RTTI.
As noted, the Arlington County Transit Bureau currently offers five types of RTTI:
- an online prediction tool for bus and rail service
- a phone-based arrival prediction tool (phone and text)
- the BusFinder at ART bus stops, and
- LED signs/LCD monitors at several bus stops and rail stations.
However, there is limited research into how users perceive these technologies, how well it meets their needs, and how it affects their transit use.
A wealth of research has been performed on the role of RTTI in improving the perception of transit service and growing ridership by offering alternatives in travel and mode choice. For instance, Carrel, Halvorsen, and Walker (2013) posited that RTTI helps travelers adapt to unreliability in transit service. Brakewood et al (2015) showed that RTTI can reduce the perception of time spent waiting and increase the perception of personal security. On the other hand, researchers have shown that RTTI increases the transit user’s control of trip-making decisions, allowing them to better time their departures and reduce total travel time from origin to destination.
This realization provided impetus for this research, aiming to explore the level of satisfaction of Arlington travelers with current RTTI and their expectations. In its most basic form, RTTI is about gathering data through tracking transit-vehicle locations and predicting arrival times at stops and stations based on distance left to travel and mean speed. Real time transit information can be provided through mobile devices or public displays. A survey of APTA’s transit agency members in 2014 reported that nearly 59 percent of transit agencies used agency websites, 41 percent used text/SMS services, 40 percent used agency smartphone applications, and 30 percent used phone systems (APTA 2015).
According to Harmony and Gayak (2017), who surveyed 24 agencies across the U.S., deploying RTTI depends on five main factors: the cost of the technology system, customer demand, technological availability, service reliability, and different-abled user requirements. Our report research sheds light on one such important factor: customer demand for different technologies.
To better understand the level of satisfaction of Arlington travelers with current RTTI and their expectations, this research aims to answer the following four sets of questions:
- What real time information delivery methods are riders aware of? And which ones do they use? Which methods are they satisfied with and find valuable? Are there winners and losers?
- What are some of the visible impacts of real-time information in Arlington? How does it affect perceptions such as reliability and wait time? How can it make public transportation a more attractive travel option?
- What are the main barriers to riders using the real-time information provided by Arlington County? What are some of the suggestions to remove those barriers?
- Where do riders and potential riders prefer to get their information? And what are the features that riders and potential riders value most in real-time information? Do they want multimodal information?
To answer the research questions, the study was designed as a multi-stage research process. It began with a comprehensive literature review on real time transit information to understand how other researchers have previously examined real time transit information and what they’ve concluded. This informed the design of qualitative focus groups and quantitative panel surveys.
A series of 14 focus groups were held between July 11, 2018 and July 26, 2018, with each group containing seven to 12 participants. Prior to the start of each focus group, a comprehensive background survey focusing on demographics, travel habits, and attitudes was administered via tablet as participants arrived. The focus group discussions informed the design of an online survey, which was utilized to reach respondents who live, work, and/or go to school in Arlington County. Overall, 346 online panel surveys were completed between September 26, 2018 and October 12, 2018. The demographics of the participants are summarized in the table below.
- Real-time transit information is important to travelers when using public transportation
The majority of online respondents (81%) agreed that “having real-time arrival information is important when using public transportation” and that “having real-time information when using public transportation helps me relax” (73% mostly or strongly agree). In the focus groups, some participants indicated that this information might be more critical for time-pressing work-related travel rather than leisure.
- Travelers want real-time transit information on time, cost, and convenience
Focus group respondents conveyed that they mainly want information on time, cost, and convenience (without any order to it), paralleling the primary factors they use in choosing their travel mode. Below are some illustrative quotes from the groups, also identifying primary transportation and age to provide additional context.
“I think the ideal app would have like all of the options and you would type in like where you’re going. And then, it would have like real-time updates for how long it’s going to take to get there, based on where you are now. And then also like the price that it’s going to cost. And like maybe every two minutes it updates. So, you’ve got real-time.” – Multimodal – under 38 years old
“… I want it to say it’s an unpleasant drive, there will be no seats on the Metro, or it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg to get there.” – Rail 38 and older
Our suggestion: Focus on cost, time and convenience in RTTI content.
- Travelers look for RTTI at the beginning of the trip and at key decision-making junctures during the trip
Sixty-five percent of respondents and 83% of ART riders check for real time arrival information before leaving home, highlighting the importance of RTTI during the trip planning phase. Interestingly, as the quotes below show, riders also seek RTTI during the trip in order to make travel decisions as they go.
“I would also say the good thing about having an app, for example, you’re in a hurry, and you’re rushing to get somewhere, then you can check the app as you’re running there. That’s what I do a lot of times, so that I don’t have to wait until I get there to search for information. I do it while I’m running.” – Bus – under 38 years old
“[I would like an electronic board in the Metro so when] I’m coming to Metro Center and it would tell me when … the next Blue Line is going to be at Metro Center, and then it would also tell me when the next Yellow Line is going to be at Gallery Place so I can make my decision: do I get off here or do I get off at the next one? So if that was in the train you know for those particular [nearby stations], I think that would be really, really helpful.” – Rail – 38 years and older
Suggestion: Prioritize providing information before the start of a trip.
- Unreliable and effort-intensive RTTI can have negative impacts on information use and public transportation use
Focus group discussions supported existing research suggesting that unreliable or inaccurate RTTI can cause riders to stop seeking out real-time information or use public transportation as it leads to poor trip planning and sub-optimal travel experiences as the quotes below show.
“… I look on the Metro schedule and it will say on time. And then by the time you walk there, it’s not on time anymore. And so, it’s kind of unreliable. So, I’ll either leave really early and take Metro, or I’ll take another mode of transportation, like Uber, because I know the estimate is going to be more reliable.” – Multimodal – under 38 years old
“If you’re not going to trust it, why bother opening it, but if you start to realize it’s doing pretty well then you’ll use it more often.” – Bus – under 38 years old
Suggestion: Prioritize the accuracy/reliability of real time information.
- Arlington residents and workers use a variety of county-offered RTTI, are satisfied with their service, and find the offered technologies valuable
A third of respondents have called a displayed phone number for transit information, received text message updates, and viewed LED displays while 38% have used Arlington County’s website. Roughly half of those who take ART during a typical week have used BusFinder. Those who have not used these technologies have reported in the online survey that awareness of those technologies is the major barrier. The overall satisfaction with the technologies are illustrated in the figure below and the detailed reactions are described thereafter.
*Source: WBA Research
Phone number: Feedback often pertained to this service taking too long, or being “outdated,” “cumbersome,” and “a hassle.” If used at all, this is mostly used as a “last resort.” However, among the online respondents, 65% of those who have used this phone number before were satisfied with their experience, and 78% of everyone surveyed indicates that this technology is valuable.
Text messages: Text messages were seen as a tool that could help travelers plan their travel and decide when to leave for the stop or station, allowing them to use their time most productively and 90% find it to be a valuable delivery method. If already en route, a text message could let users know if they need to run to catch the next bus or if they can take their time. However, the main concern that was brought up by respondents was with receiving too many text messages and hence the need for customization in terms of routes, days of the week, and time of the days for their primary routes.
Arlington Website: Eighty percent of those who have used the Arlington website were mostly or completely satisfied with their experience, and 94% of all online respondents indicating that it is valuable for Arlington County to provide this website. Notably, nearly all of the ART riders surveyed (99%) find this website valuable.
BusFinder: While some appreciated the BusFinder for its sheer simplicity, many felt that it was missing key functionality that would make it a useful delivery method for real time information. One of the main complaints is that it cannot be used as a tool to help inform decisions. Seventy-eight percent of online respondents were satisfied with their experience and more than nine in 10 respondents (95%) consider this a valuable device for Arlington County to provide at bus stops.
LED/LCD signs: Almost nine in 10 respondents (87%) say they are satisfied with their experience getting real-time information from these message boards. Those who ride ART are significantly more likely to be mostly or completely satisfied with their experience than those who ride other modes of public transportation (94% versus 80%). Ninety-six percent of the online respondents indicated that it is somewhat to very valuable for Arlington County to provide this signage at bus stops. Those 38 years old or more find this type of display particularly valuable, with nearly all of those respondents (99%) indicating that this is a valuable resource.
Dynamic message boards: Overall, dynamic message boards garnered the most positive reactions from the focus group participants. While use and awareness is relatively lower, about nine in 10 respondents (93%) report being mostly or completely satisfied with their experience getting real-time information from such message boards. Furthermore, all respondents report being at least somewhat satisfied, with none indicating that they were not very or not at all satisfied. Focus group participants had creative ideas in regards to where they would like to see the screens.
Mobile applications: While the prevailing attitude seems to be that people would like to find real-time information through an app, experiences with using apps can be difficult as there are so many options available and each offers different information. The key takeaway was that respondents do not want yet another app on their phone that only provides a piece of the puzzle. Instead they would like one single or centralized app that works to combine all available information in one place.
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