Five Incentives to Attract Commuters to Mass Transit

Each weekday morning, millions of Americans start their cars to begin their morning commute without considering the cost, both to themselves, and to their city. Though most are aware that public transportation would save them time and money, deep down they’ve decided that they are willing to pay the price – that it’s worth it for the privacy and convenience of driving their own car to work or school. U.S. Department of Transportation data shows that, on average, only 5% of Americans use public transportation, while 76% commute in single-driver vehicles. For cities, the result is greater traffic congestion, and public transportation systems that are ready for commuters but running with few passengers. More and more, cities are exploring incentives as a way to change commuters’ perceptions and choices around public transportation.

Here are five of the most recent incentive approaches cities have taken to make public transportation more appealing and more effective.

1. Save commuters even more money. Discounted tickets are a pretty direct and simple approach to winning over commuters. Most riders are aware public transportation will save them money over driving – why not motivate commuters by offering to save them even more? Regular travelers on California’s McClellan Park Light Rail receive a 50% subsidy, and riders get a 75% subsidy for their first month’s pass. The program not only encourages drivers to choose public transportation, but the 75% initial subsidy entices riders who have never used the Light Rail to give it a try.

Free transportation offered by employers or institutions is another great incentive. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has awarded energy tax credits to businesses and organizations that offer financial incentives to encourage employees to use public transportation for their commutes. Under a 10-year plan that began in 2012, North Carolina State University’s Wolfline charges each student a fixed fee at registration that provides bus service on and around the campus and to nearby public transportation areas. The service gets an average of 14,000 weekly boardings and helps the school manage parking shortages and campus congestion.

2. Make it easy with Shuttle Buses to the Station. Cities that really want to reduce single-vehicle traffic have turned to shuttle buses that run from neighborhoods to public transportation stations and lines. The shuttles appeal to commuters and even influence which neighborhoods commuters choose. “People make decisions to live there because of the shuttles,” says Megan Cummings, Transportation Management Plan Coordinator for the city of Alexandria, Virginia.

Free transfers have also proven effective in winning commuters over to public transportation. In one of the first incentive programs for mass transit, the New York Metro System discovered in 1997 that free transfers greatly increased ridership because the transfers combined a reduced rate with increased flexibility and simplicity.

3. Make it fun. Transit agenciesare making use of mobile ticketing and smartphones to offer personalized rewards such as points toward gift items, free coffee and complimentary drinks. Bay Area Rapid Transit was one of the first agencies to offer rewards in a campaign to shift commuter behavior. Their BART Perks program offered travelers a point toward cash or game opportunities for every mile traveled, but riders could earn up to six times more points by travelling at less congested times. Funding for the program recently ended, but BART is looking at other ways incentives could be used.

4. Target the commuters you want. To target commuters choosing driving over public transportation, the King County, Washington Transit Incentive Program gave 8 free rides on Seattle’s Metro bus system to households with at least one registered vehicle. The program was successful in introducing households to the transit system, and saw a high demand for the free tickets and resulting Metro travel.

5. Offer incentives based on location. Portland’s TriMet has explored using its system for mobile ticketing to base rewards on the rider’s physical location. “If you arrive at Haverford Septa station and we have a partner nearby, we could send a push notification offering $1 off a beer tonight,” says Septa Marketing Chief Liz Bradford. This approach could allow the transit system partner with area businesses for a new revenue source as well as motivating commuters and managing travel times.

Commuters’ and riders’ response to incentives vary by a number of factors – whether the traveler is dependent on transit, the time of day, the type of trip, population density and the overall cultural attitude toward public transportation. Though the impact of incentives in relation to demographic factors is still being studied, the incentives being offered have proven effective in many areas. In Arlington County, Virginia, the R&D organization Mobility Lab estimates incentives have resulted in 45,000 more public transportation commutes per day. BART found its incentives program did indeed shift commuter behavior, with 10% of their established commuters shifting their travel time in response to the incentives offered. The possibilities to shift rider perceptions and behaviors, and possibly open new revenue streams, mean that in the decade to come city transportation agencies will be exploring what incentives best motivate their riders.