[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on December 18, 2013]
Bus ridership is getting the respect it deserves.
Or at least that is the case in Arlington County, Virginia according to a new report released today by Arlington County Commuter Services (ACCS).
The report, titled Arlington Transit Ridership Study, contains the results of a survey of Arlington Transit (ART) riders that was administered by LDA Consulting and Southeastern Institute of Research (SIR) for ACCS between May and June of 2013.
The study is a follow-up to an initial survey that took place in 2008, and includes several interesting findings pointing to ART’s transformation into a highly rated mode of transportation used by a loyal and diverse ridership.
ART is a system of state-of-the-art buses – most running on clean-burning natural gas and known for their distinctive green color – operating throughout Arlington County supplementing Metrobus with cross-county routes as well as neighborhood connections to Metrorail.
Bus transportation generally in the United States has been a relatively maligned form of transportation, viewed by many (perhaps unfairly) as unsafe, inefficient, overcrowded, and unclean. The Atlantic Cities also outlined the complex issues of race and class that can contribute to a “stigma of riding the bus in America.”
Regardless of these perceptions regarding bus transportation generally, the ACCS survey makes clear that the above adjectives don’t apply to Arlington County’s ART system. “ART serves all,” is one of the major findings of the study, meaning that ART cuts across all racial, ethnic, income, and age groups. Millennials, in particular, are a population cohort using ART in significant numbers, indicating that younger generations may be less prone to the purported stigma of the bus.
In fact, the ART study indicates that customer satisfaction with ART is incredibly high. On a five-point customer-satisfaction scale, 90 percent of ART riders gave the system a four or five, the highest rates possible. That’s an increase of five percentage points over what was found in the 2008 study.
Many bus systems would probably be thrilled to have ART’s success in attracting “choice” riders. Choice (as opposed to “captive” or transit-dependent) riders are defined as those with more than one transportation option. They are, as the name suggests, thought to be more selective when choosing transportation modes, and more sensitive and reactive to issues such as poor customer service, unreliability, and uncleanliness.
Under the assumption that choice riders demand a nicer bus experience, and with the knowledge that customer service was indicated as an opportunity for improvement in the 2008 survey, Arlington has worked hard to deliver a higher quality experience to ART riders.
Regarding the goal of attracting more choice riders to buses, neighboring District of Columbia may be a good point of comparison. WMATA’s Analysis of FY2013 Metrobus Ridership points to the ability of that bus system, in a year marked by a slight decline in bus ridership overall, to attract a greater number of choice riders than in prior years.
In fact, Arlington transit officials are sure that once potential riders try ART, they’ll be regular and frequent customers. The ART study bears out this belief, showing that once riders experience ART, they remain loyal to the service. Not only has trip frequency of ART riders increased between 2008 and 2013, so has customer satisfaction. A majority of all riders rank ART’s level of service as “equal to or better than” other transit in the region. Choice riders’ rating of the service is as high or higher than captive riders, a surprising finding and testament to ART’s potential ability to win over this selective customer base.
In a landscape of ever-increasing competition in transportation – from Capital Bikeshare to Uber, not to mention Metrorail – the ART bus ratings are no small achievement.