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My vision for Metro: Marketing itself

HoustonMetro

Part 1: Buses

Metro Board member Christoph Spieler has said that Metro turns over 20 percent of its ridership each year, just due to the natural comings and goings of life. As such, Metro doesn’t have to expend effort to persuade current non-users to give it a try in order to build ridership. It just needs to be a better option for the people whose life changes – turning 18, moving, different job, retiring, whatever – put them in a position to think about how best to get around for their daily routines. That’s true enough as it goes, and ridership trends since the new bus network was unveiled have shown the wisdom of that approach, but I’m here today to convince you – and them – that they should try to recruit current non-riders. Naturally, I have a suggestion for how to do it as well.

My thinking on this started with a simple question: What is it that keeps people from using Metro in the first place? Obviously, it’s not going to be viable for everybody, but for many people it’s at least a possible choice. What is the main thing that keeps people from trying it to see how it might work for them, or to even think of trying it? Habit, convenience, and weather concerns would all be on the list, but if I had to guess, I’d say that most people think that taking transit to work or school will take significantly longer than driving will. Who wants to spend more time during the day getting to and from where you need to be?

And again, for some number of people, transit clearly isn’t as good an option as driving. Maybe the don’t live or work near a high- or medium-frequency bus line, or maybe they’d have to make multiple transfers. But for many others, especially those who work in the major employment centers, there’s likely to be a transit option that will at least be reasonably comparable to driving. My suspicion is that for a lot of these people, they have no idea that this is true. If they did, some of them would consider transit. Perhaps some other people might take that information into consideration when they make their next move. But first, that information needs to be made available.

And even before that, this information needs to be discovered. Metro knows how long it generally takes its buses to get from point A to point B, but that’s not the same thing. To make this data useful, it needs to tell the whole story, from point of origin to point of arrival, with walk time, wait time, and travel time all taken into account. Those numbers need to be computed multiple times, because on any one day a rider could catch a bus right away and not experience much traffic, or could have to wait to get picked up and then get caught at every light. And of course you want this for as many start-and-end combinations as possible.

The best way to do this is to crowdsource it. Metro has thousands of daily riders. Enlist them to tell their daily stories over, say, a two week period. Put out an app, or make an upgrade to an existing app, to track all the relevant data points. For example:

Time at which I left home.
Time at which I arrived at my initial bus/train station, and the name of said station.
Time at which I board my bus/train.
Time at which I arrive at my destination/transfer station, and the name of said station.
(If transferring: Time at which I board my next bus/train. Repeat previous step.)
Time at which I arrive at my office.

Meanwhile, challenge drivers to get the app and do the same thing. I’ve said before, I believe people often underestimate their real travel times. They only count the time they spend in the car, maybe only the time they’re on whatever freeway or main road they take, but don’t count how long it takes them to get to their office from their car, or how long it takes them to find a parking place. Which, in the case of major employment centers and big, sometimes off-site parking lots, can be longer than you think. One underrated aspect of transit (and bike riding, for that matter), is that transit stops can often be closer to office buildings than parking lots may be. That can save you a bit of time at one end or the other.

Give everyone who turns in two weeks’ data a reward, say a month’s worth of rides on their Q card, and an “I Took The Metro Trip Time Challenge” t-shirt or coffee mug. Maybe have weekly random drawings for other prizes, life restaurant or Starbucks gift cards. Do this over the course of a couple of months, then publish the data and see what happens. Maybe some direct comparisons will be available, and will be surprising. Whatever the case, the data will be interesting. It might provide the basis for a future advertising campaign designed to urge people to consider their options. Maybe it will speak for itself. Maybe it will highlight a need to improve some services. I don’t know. But I’d love to find out, and I bet Metro would love to as well.

I should note that publicizing this study, and ultimately its results, should be easily done via social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (does Metro have an Instagram account? If not, why not?), all the usual suspects. Just doing this ought to get Metro some positive attention, which would make it worthwhile all by itself. I don’t see a down side to any of this. What do you say, Metro?

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7 Comments

  1. Jules says:

    Charles, I know you use the bus sometimes. Can you share your info here? Bus time door-to-desk and vice versa and same for driving?

  2. Ross says:

    I had to take a bus after Allison flooded my car. On a relatively direct route, taking the bus turned a 15 minute drive into a 45 minute slog. That’s why I seldom take a bus anywhere.

  3. Jules, I haven’t done the meticulous data collection that I mention here, but my bus times are generally pretty comparable to my driving times. I should emphasize that I have a long walk from the downtown parking garage that my wife and I use – we carpool, and the garage is much closer to her office than to mine – so when I have short bus wait times, I can sometimes have a shorter total travel time with the bus. Overall, it’s usually a few minutes longer on the bus, but nothing that you’d really notice.

    Average drive plus walk time is about 25 minutes – we take I-45 after dropping the kids off at school on the way in, so traffic on 45 is the main variable. It can be more like 20 minutes on the rare days when 45 is moving smoothly. Going home we take surface roads, so traffic and stop lights are the variables. Worst case scenario for driving is about 35 minutes. For the buses, I’d say the range is 20 to 40 minutes. I really should try my own experiment and get more exact numbers.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    Not exactly a work commute, but I had a family member in a hospital at the Med Center for an extended period of time, so I “commuted” there almost daily. To drive 2 1/2 miles to park and catch a bus, at San Jacinto College South, change buses at Hobby airport, then hop on the red line rail took over 1.5 hours, not including my drive time going, and 2 hours coming back, again, not including drive time. Compare that to 25-50 minutes driving, depending on traffic.

    What I concluded from that is, while it is theoretically possible to use the bus service, in practice, unless you are going on a very short hop, it isn’t worth it. I would consider using it to fly out of Hobby, though.

    I met a woman on the bus that told me her commute was over 3 hours each way on the bus to go across town, including multiple transfers. For folks that do not live close to their workplace or whatever destination they are seeking to go to, I can’t see how Metro is a good option. It seems like a “last resort” option to anyone with a car.

  5. Jules says:

    Charles, so do you take the kids to school on the bus on bus days? Or is it a different commute?

  6. Jules, if one of us takes transit in the morning, the other one takes the kids to school.

    As it happens, I took the bus in this morning. My timeline for it:

    6:00 – Left the house
    6:03 – Arrived at bus stop
    6:03 – Picked up by first bus
    6:08 – Arrived at transfer stop
    6:19 – Picked up by second bus
    6:28 – Arrived at destination stop
    6:28 – Arrived at office

    I got to the first stop literally seconds before the bus arrived. I know from past experience that a bus usually comes by at around that time, and I was lucky to not be any later getting there than I was. My office is across the street from my destination stop, so it takes basically no time to get there from the stop. Total time of 28 minutes is comparable to driving for me because of the long walk from the garage we use, though that’s comparing drive times for when we usually leave, which is around 7:30. Had I driven today, leaving at 6 as I did to get the bus, I’d have expected to arrive at the office in no more than 20 minutes. But we have a car in the shop, and I was the one doing something outside the norm, so I took transit.

    I would add that my trip in could have been shorter if I’d had a shorter wait for bus #2. I was traveling outside of peak hours, so that’s the way it goes. When I take the bus home, which is during peak time, I almost never have to wait more than 5 minutes at either stop, and often get picked up by the first bus within a minute or two.

  7. Bill, I agree that the longer your overall journey is, the more time-consuming it is via transit, unless you’re taking an express bus. Houston’s a big city, and there’s only so much that can be done about that.

    The way I recommend looking at it is this: Those of you for whom driving is the only viable option should want transit to be as convenient and attractive as possible for people like me who do have a choice, because if we’re on the bus we’re not adding to traffic or competing with you for parking.