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Behind the scenes with MBTA data.

Analysis of how customers use tools to decide their route to destination through different modes.

MBTA riders make daily travel decisions based on the agency’s various services and schedules. Passengers base their MBTA travel decisions both on their own needs to be at particular destinations at specific times and on their perception of the MBTA’s ability to meet these needs.

As part of revising the Service Delivery Policy, the MBTA conducted a survey last year to collect rider input on how passengers use transit services. The Service Standards Survey, which was open to the public online between June 18th and July 31st, 2015, included several questions on how riders decide when to arrive at an MBTA stop or station. This post discusses the results of these questions.

Frequent Trip Planning by Mode

Passengers were asked how they plan their arrival times at the first MBTA stop/station for frequent trips, with choices regarding the different physical and online tools available to plan trips around MBTA service schedules. Unsurprisingly, the planning patterns vary highly by mode used for the frequent trip.

Chart 1:“How do you usually plan your arrival time at the first MBTA stop/station for a frequent trip?”

  Chart displaying answers to how customers plan their arrival time

Results are weighted by mode usage to correspond with the Systemwide Passenger Survey (2008-09)

Chart 2: “How do you usually plan your arrival time at the first MBTA stop/station for a frequent trip?” by mode Chart displaying answers on trip planning sorted by mode

RT only: the frequent trip uses only rapid transit; CR: the frequent trip has at least one “leg” on the Commuter Rail; Bus: the frequent trip uses buses either alone or with rapid transit

As shown in Chart 1, for frequent trips, 37% of respondents answered that they plan around a memorized schedule, i.e. without the need to confirm times with the official MBTA schedules. This is not surprising for frequent trips, as regular riders tend to incorporate the agency’s scheduled service into their daily routines. 

Further exploring in Chart 2 shows that 69% of Commuter Rail passengers memorize their schedules, compared to only 21% of bus users and 25% of rapid transit users. Commuter rail schedules indeed can be easier for passengers to remember given the fixed train departure times. Bus riders tend to use real-time apps, which provide more pertinent information that the schedule itself, since buses are heavily influenced by street traffic. Rapid transit riders generally do not consult a schedule at all, reflecting the relatively frequent service on rapid transit lines. 

Real-Time Information

The second largest planning alternative chosen by respondents overall (29%) was the use of real-time information, i.e. information provided by mobile apps like Nextbus or Transit.  Currently, there are more than 70 scheduling and real-time apps built by independent developers that let users know where their bus or train is and when it is expected to arrive to their stop or station. Developers analyze real-time and static transportation data made available by MassDOT and the MBTA and build applications that make this information available to passengers in a user friendly display. 

As might be expected, there are age variations in use of real-time information, but mode is the bigger determinant of what method riders choose to use to plan their trips. Chart 3, shows, for example, that among commuter rail riders, there is little variation in level of use of real time information (extremely low across the board, although the usage does decline consistently with age). Among bus riders, use of real-time information is consistently the top choice of trip planning, although there is some age variation; riders 22 to 44 use real-time information more than either younger or older bus riders.

Riders who only use rapid transit for their most frequent trip show a fascinating trend: approximately 62-65% of these riders in most age groups either use real-time information or just arrive at the station without consulting any source of information.  For 22 to 34 year-olds, the split is 28% to 37% in favor of just showing up at the station. By 65+, the split is 8% to 55% in favor of just showing up at the station – a steady progression towards not consulting real time information for rapid transit service.

Chart 3. Real Time Information Use by Mode and Age Group

Chart showing Real Time Information use by Mode and by Age group

Real-time Information Challenges

Even when recognized as resourceful tools, real-time data and scheduling apps still present challenges. Developers tend to base their app functionality on MBTA service schedules, vehicle tracking, and user trip patterns. Apps use built-in models to predict train and bus arrivals, forecasts that prove useful to certain extents. External factors such as traffic, signal problems, accidents, and passenger overcrowding can cause delays in services that sometimes apps are not able to capture.

As shown in Chart 4, respondents indeed report problems when using real-time and scheduling apps, with large percentages of commuter rail, rapid transit, and bus passengers reporting problems with predicted service inaccuracy. Furthermore, Chart 5 reflects passenger sentiment towards these issues and how the most disruptive problems tend to be inaccurate predictions and predicted service that never actually arrived. 

Chart 4. “In the past month, have you had any of the following problems when using a mobile/smartphone app?”

Chart displaying responses to reported problems with apps

Chart 5. “Please indicate how disruptive each issue was to your travel plans.”

Chart displaying how disruptive each smartphone issue was

MBTA Featured App Contest

As the MBTA and app developers work to improve our real-time information, we have to take into account what types of problems are most disruptive to passengers.  Up to now, the MBTA’s official stance has been to not endorse a particular app, but instead highlight the quantity of variety of apps available to meet different riders’ needs. The MBTA app showcase includes over 70 apps, and the table on the MBTA’s Winter Information page lists the most common apps along with the modes they are frequently used for and their most popular features.

In an effort to further promote the ease of app use to users, as well as to encourage app development that fits the needs of MBTA riders and focuses on current challenges faced by real-time information users, the MBTA is holding a Featured App Contest. The winning app will receive official endorsement and marketing from the MBTA. The winner will be determined by evaluation of the features that address some of the concerns of the riders, including customizable in-app alerting, integration with the mobile ticketing provider for Commuter Rail, and means of in-app collection of customer feedback.  

More information is available at the MBTA app RFP