For a data deep-dive: watch our webinar (complete with Q&A) featuring Christine Mongeau and Kaj Huddart from our partnerships team, along with data analyst Étienne Tremblay.
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Transit riders are always checking their phones: for directions, to see when the next bus is coming, or to read an alert from their transit agency. At Transit, we don’t just give updates to riders, we also get updates from them to help agencies gauge rider sentiment about service, safety, and more.
Four times a year, we ask riders to grade how their transit agency is doing and say what would improve their experience of riding public transit. It’s all part of our Rider Happiness Benchmarking (RHB) program, launched with our steering committee of agency partners.
Our surveys are representative of transit riders at large and represent the sentiment of people who are actively riding the transit system in their cities, not those who plan to return to public transit in the future.
With this information, agencies can better understand what riders need, their future plans, and their perceptions of public transit. The results yield some surprising insights and highlight a few potential low-cost opportunities for agencies.
This summer, we surveyed more than 28,000 riders from transit agencies across the United States and Canada from July 27 to August 6. Here are the top takeaways of what we learned:
- Satisfaction with local transit agencies is up, but there’s a lot of variation
- Public meetings, even virtually, are not reaching riders
- Pre-pandemic patterns are returning slowly but surely… but mostly slowly
- Vaccination rates among riders are high, though mask compliance has dipped
- Masks may be here to stay on public transit, even if mask mandates end
- Riders have goodwill for agencies but react negatively to service changes
- More frequent buses and more reliable real-time info top riders’ wishlists
Want to dive in? Let’s get started.
1. Satisfaction with local transit agencies is up, but there’s a lot of variation
Our survey utilizes the Net Promoter Score (NPS), a common scoring system in marketing research that uses a 10-point scale to ask riders if they would recommend their transit agency to friends or family. NPS is calculated by taking the percentage of responses of 9 or 10 and subtracting the percentage of responses at 6 or below. Overall NPS for North American transit agencies increased from -12 in November 2020 to -2 in April 2021, and +1 in July 2021.
2. Public meetings, even virtually, are not reaching riders
Our sample of riders receive information from and communicate with their transit agency primarily through their smartphone. Messages onboard vehicles and at transit stops also remain important, while social media has limited traction. Although online public meetings have reached more people than in-person public meetings in the past six months, both have very low rates of participation and are likely not the best venues to connect with a broad range of riders about major projects.
3. Pre-pandemic patterns are returning slowly but surely… but mostly slowly
Public transit riders are relying less on other modes of transport (such as ridehail, driving, or bicycling) than they did earlier in the pandemic. People are slowly returning to in-person work and school, but most riders don’t expect their commuting patterns or transit usage to change much in the coming months.
4. Vaccination rates among riders are high, though mask compliance has dipped
Transit riders across North America continue to report high vaccination rates. At the same time, riders report seeing more people without masks onboard, particularly in Canada where some transit agencies have relaxed their mask requirements.
- 72% of respondents say they are fully vaccinated (up from 27% in April 2021), while 15% have not received any doses of the vaccine (down from 50% in April 2021).
- Just 38% strongly agreed that everyone was wearing a mask during their last trip (down from 47% in April 2021) and 27% disagreed or strongly disagreed that everyone was wearing a mask (up from 20% in April 2021).
- 40% of US respondents strongly agree that everyone on board their transit trips was wearing a mask, vs. 36% in Canada
- Riders on MTA subways (New York, NY) and RTD (Denver, CO) report the lowest levels of mask compliance in the US, despite the continued mask mandate.
5. Masks may be here to stay on public transit, even if mask mandates end
The norms around masking on public transit may have changed permanently as riders support mask mandates and mask-wearing more generally, even without mask mandates in place. Saskatoon Transit, for example, is one of the Canadian agencies that relaxed its mask mandate for a few months this summer, offering a glimpse into what might happen if other cities follow suit. Although riders in Saskatoon reported the lowest rate of mask-wearing in North America while the mandate was lifted, support for masks among Saskatoon riders remains high. Generally, support for masks is higher in the US than in Canada.
6. Riders have goodwill for agencies but react negatively to service changes
Overall, riders have positive reactions to how their local transit agency has handled the pandemic. However, riders have harshly judged agencies that made the biggest changes to service. For example: SFMTA/Muni (San Francisco, CA) implemented a series of major changes in response to COVID-19, while VTA (San Jose, CA) suffered from a mass shooting and operator shortages that have suspended its light rail service, and ETS (Edmonton, AB) implemented a major system redesign. All three agencies ranked near the bottom when we asked riders to say whether they can continue to get where they need to go on public transit during the pandemic. There’s significant variation between agencies on these scores, showing that communications from transit systems themselves play a strong role in influencing perception.
- Of respondents who are riding less during the pandemic, 41% said it was due to reductions in service or route modifications made in response to COVID-19.
- 45% of respondents feel well-informed by their transit agency about route disruptions and service changes (down 2% from April 2021).
- 64% have a positive impression of their agency’s COVID-19 safety measures (up 2% from April 2021).
- 64% also believe their agency has done the best it could to deal with COVID-19 given the budget and resources available (up 3% from April 2021).
7. More frequent buses and more reliable real-time info top riders’ wishlists
More frequent service and more reliable real-time information are the top two requests from riders when asked what could get them to use public transit more. Compared to other agencies, Miami-Dade Transit riders were the most supportive of faster and more convenient service, while Montreal-area riders of the RTL (Longueuil, QC) and the STL (Laval, QC) were the most supportive of making it easier to purchase tickets and passes.
As agencies continue to contemplate major adjustments to bus service, riders are most supportive of increased frequency. However, changes to bus stops are more controversial. 42% support consolidation of bus stops to speed up routes, with 34% in opposition. Meanwhile, 51% support the addition of more bus stops, with 22% in opposition.