The secret to getting more riders to use public transit may be as simple as making it easier.

A new report by Masabi, a company known for developing mobile-ticketing technology, has found that what riders are looking for is convenience. More than price, length of trip and even necessity, the biggest motivator getting commuters and others onto buses and trains in the United States is the convenience of the system.

“Convenience can mean a number of things to different people depending on their journey requirements,” said James A. Gooch, head of marketing at Masabi. Some of those convenience mechanisms can involve technology such as mobile ticketing, real-time vehicle tracking or trip-planning — all features that some of the more progressive transit agencies now offer in various forms. 

Still other transit agencies are exploring other avenues to make the trip a little easier, and have more riders choosing transit. For example, addressing the dreaded first-mile-last-mile issue has become top-of-mind in numerous cities.

"Public transit has historically been less convenient than the car, due to the first-last-mile issue — getting to and from your station or stop for a complete door-to-door journey,” Gooch said.

“Ride- and bike-sharing services are now helping solve the first-last-mile issue as well,” he added. “Bring all of these things together, add open data, regular services, and the ability of an agency to effectually control and prioritize transit resources and you have a viable alternative to private-car ownership and the start of a ‘mobility-as-a-service’ [MaaS] offering, which will only get more attractive to citizens with the availability of more on-demand services and autonomous vehicles.”

The survey, which polled 1,000 U.S. residents in fall 2017, included people who both use public transportation as well as some who do not. Everyone polled, it should be noted, had access to public transit. Respondents were relatively evenly split among age, gender, geography and other demographic data, according to the report’s methodology.

This discussion about the changing rates of transit use comes amid a growing concern among transit and other officials as they try to understand why transit ridership has been declining across a number of cities and transit networks of all sizes.

Convenience could surely be a by-product of the newly reconfigured bus route system in Houston, where transit planners redrew routes aiming for more direct and easier-to-decipher routes.

“We had a very complicated system that had really never been evaluated,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, otherwise known as METRO, in a recent interview with Government Technology. METRO also beefed up its late-night and weekend service, making it more convenient for non-traditional 9-to-5 workers.

“We tried to make it much more consistent so that people could depend on it,” Luhrsen said. Overall ridership in Houston grew about 0.8 percent from 2016 to 2017, with light rail growing about 3.2 percent, and bus ridership holding steady, according to METRO ridership statistics.

Despite such successes in places like Houston, public transit in the United States still seems vastly underutilized. Some 70 percent of commuters polled in the Masabi survey reported driving themselves on at least a weekly basis, and 40 percent never use public transportation, despite having a mostly positive view of it.

However, if transit agencies can make the service more convenient, the Masabi report concludes, they can attract more riders — particularly those who have other transit options such as a car in the garage.

“One of the key message of this report was that convenience is crucial to riders when selecting to ride a mode of transport, and especially to riders who use public transit infrequently,” Gooch said. “But with the right technology convenience enablers, investment in services and public-private partnerships, agencies can not only survive, but thrive, helping to reduce congestion, pollution and create more livable cities of the future."

The study also pointed out that some riders are replacing public transit usage with a ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft — though not many. Nearly 10 percent of survey respondents say they have replaced transit with ride-hailing on a weekly basis. More often, nearly 35 percent of those surveyed, they report combining ride-hailing with transit use, opening up opportunities for transit to partner with transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. 

Another study by the Shared-Use Mobility Center, an imprint of the Transit Cooperative Research Program at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, found that the majority of TNC trips were relatively short and did not significantly impact transit ridership during morning and afternoon commutes — historically the domain of transit. However, the research found that TNC use tends to spike late at night, especially on weekends, when transit service is generally dialed back.

“Think about the TNCs being a part of a much larger ecosystem, creating choices that prioritize transit, but provide a lot of different options,” said Sharon Feigon, executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center. “There’s really some good potential to work together.”