Tag Archive | perception

Barriers to entry and the path of least resistance

(Photo: Flickr / Helen Cook)

Many people will volunteer that taking transit or eating locally is a good thing to do. But yet, people do not undertake sacrifices in droves to make “right” choices, unless there is no alternative.¬†If we aim to change the choices people make, it helps to have a good way of thinking about the decision-making process. Here’s my way, which I find useful as a general conceptual framework:

People generally follow the path of least resistance given their situation and reject other paths due to higher barriers to entry. Moreover, the pool of resources for overcoming barriers is limited.

To be more precise, what matters is the perceived resistance and barriers.* We can be influenced by culture or limited information to perceive a choice as being more or less difficult. Though I think it takes a great deal of culture to get us to willingly refrain from littering, or to get us to recycle — and even then, we need those options to be easy.

Barriers to entry are anything that comes between the path of least resistance (or between no choice) and another choice. These could be a lack of information, difficulty of usage, discomfort of use, price, how long something takes, etc. — and there is both commonality and individual variation in the factors. The current path of least resistance may well have had its own barriers to entry.

Take the example of driving. At some point, the motorist had to learn to drive and had to buy and register a car. Following the framework suggests that overcoming those barriers actually was the path of least resistance, e.g. lacking a car severely restricted mobility. But once the car is in your driveway, the barriers to entry are few: the perceived marginal cost of gas/maintenance/depreciation (low), the price of parking (generally free), the price of the roads (generally free), and congestion to face (now we might be getting somewhere).

The view offers some specific guidance to changing choices:

Remove barriers to entry: provide frequent transit service for which one doesn’t need a schedule, let people use their cell phones or credit cards to get on transit, eliminate marginal costs through universal passes, get rid of helmet laws for cycling, make available bicycles that are easy to use in all conditions.

Put up barriers to entry: increase congestion, increase (or make more obvious) the marginal cost of driving — motorists won’t take into account the costs of highway infrastructure or parking if they’re never faced with them. Make roadways more narrow, thus decreasing the speed of least resistance (instead of hoping that speed limits will work).

Take advantage of the barriers that already occur, such as the large initial barriers to driving. Provide sufficiently good alternatives to car ownership — transit, cycling, walking, carshare — that it simply never makes sense to take the plunge and buy a car, and maybe not even to get a driver’s license. It’s much harder to get people not to use the car they own than it is to get people to continue not owning one.

Demolish false perceptions of barriers to entry, through education, good information and maps, and marketing.

The overwhelming implication of the perspective is this: to change people’s decisions, focus less on convincing and more on making the choice easy. Instead of attributing choices to something intrinsic about the person, or blaming the person for not doing enough, start changing the path of least resistance.

*To be even more precise and general would require adding in a notion of utility.

Another perspective on the Iron Horse Trail

This post is cross-posted to the TriTAG blog. Go there to leave any comments.

It can be insightful to take another perspective on something we’re used to. Yesterday I walked the length of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Iron Horse Trail and photographed it from its most common vantage points — the roads crossing it. There is little immediately evident in these photos, but I will explain below. Read More…

Don’t be fooled by middling transit frequency

Most bus routes here are infrequent, with buses no more often than every 30 minutes. What would count as frequent? I’m sure the majority of those who don’t use transit think every 15 minutes is frequent. But I’d bet most would change their minds after going to a bus stop and waiting 10-15 minutes (or more) for such a “frequent” bus. In the abstract 15 minutes isn’t much time, but at a bus stop it’s forever. Which is why truly frequent service is every 8 minutes or better, which doesn’t allow much time for getting annoyed with waiting.

If using schedules or trip planners, any frequency increase certainly improves the transit experience. But though we are tempted to think of 15 minute service as being frequent, it just is not good enough to be painlessly used without schedules. The difficulty with middling headways of 15-20 minutes is that while it seems like one should be able to use the service without a schedule, in practice doing so is not advisable. Even schedule-using riders may be more lax following the timetable than with avowedly infrequent service, and so more likely to just miss the bus — leaving them to wait the full 15 minutes until the next one.

Transit agencies, politicians, and transit advocates should call a spade a spade, and only refer to transit services as frequent if they can be used painlessly without a schedule by most people — and not just the transit-dependent, either.

Bold lines: Guaranteed high-frequency bus routes

I’ve written before about the complexities and uncertainties of bus systems. Here I outline one simple way to make transit networks more accessible to riders and would-be riders: guaranteed high-frequency routes. Creating such routes and marking them in bold on maps makes clear what portion of a system is accessible without a schedule, making possible spontaneous trips and more natural transit use.

Lines should be marked in bold on route maps if they run (for example):

  • At least every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday from 6 am to 10 pm and Sundays and holidays from 8 am to 8 pm;
  • At least every 30 minutes the rest of the time.

Express routes should be clearly delineated from other routes on the same corridor. Branching is okay, but only sections of a line meeting the frequency criteria may be marked in bold. Streetcar lines, if any, should meet bold line standards, perhaps being drawn in a separate color for clarity. Maps should list the service frequency for bold lines, and bus stops along bold routes should clearly indicate their status as such.

Currently there is not a single Grand River Transit route that qualifies. Route 7 mainline is pretty close to bold between King & Ottawa and King & University, but lacks night service. On University between Westmount and Weber, routes 8 and 12 could together be close as well.

Bus routes necessitating a schedule are only accessible to committed bus riders, and are unfriendly to casual users. A guaranteed high frequency on selected routes makes those lines easier and more pleasant to use for the choice rider as well as for the regular transit user. Minimum nightly service assures users that they will not be stranded, which encourages use during all hours.

Transit systems without bold lines should try implementing a small network of them. And systems that already have lines that qualify should be making a big deal of it. Simplified pocket-size maps ought to be freely available to show the transit-novice and the transit-averse which routes are easy to use.

It is difficult for low frequency service to spur enough ridership to “justify” high frequency service; it’s an uphill battle of incremental service increases in tandem with small ridership increases (and sporadic service cuts for good measure). Bold lines allow a transit network to pull itself up by the bootstraps through strategic allocation of resources into a network structure that is qualitatively different and more accessible to riders.

Contradictions in light rail opposition

I just sent in a letter to the editor at the Record:

It is insightful to contrast the two main complaints about the recommended light rail proposal.

Some say that we shouldn’t build expensive and inflexible light rail, that we should spend less money on an expanded bus system. They claim buses are just as good as trains, but are cheaper and more flexible. Well, to say nothing of the positive impact of a visibly permanent route, I will note that people in the real world vastly prefer trains to buses.

Just look at the Cambridge residents angry that they’re not yet getting the train! They’re upset because they’re getting left with only buses, and it speaks volumes about people’s true feelings about them. Those who have the choice will continue to avoid buses, but it is precisely these people who we need to be enticing out of their cars.

I, for one, would prefer seeing trains to Cambridge sooner rather than later. However, if we don’t build light rail at least in K-W, no one will leave their cars, and all of us in the region will bear the resulting costs of sprawl and roads.

Reality-based transit planning

Discussion, planning, and design of transit systems that aims to get people to use them must be based on what people actually do rather than on what they should do. The more in line with people’s actual use a transit system is, the more useful and economically efficient it is.

It is irrelevant how far people should want to walk to get to transit. The reality is that they are not willing to walk far, though the more complete reality is that they are willing to walk further to get to a train than to a bus.

It is irrelevant that people could plan around infrequent service. Very few are willing to do so.

It is irrelevant that people should take the bus to get to where they need to go. Either they will or they won’t, and empirical evidence all over the world says that they will do everything in their power to avoid buses.

This is why I have been talking about perception and simplicity. Because at the core of a transit system are people who have to navigate it using their faculties of perception and memory (and more), and who also do not derive equal pain or pleasure from the various modes of transportation. Paternalistic transit planning based on what people should do is self-defeating.

The uncertainty of buses

A lot of the issues with regular bus systems can be explained as uncertainty:

You don’t know which route you should take, where to find that bus route, when the next bus is supposed to arrive, how early or late it will actually arrive, and where to get off. The only thing that is generally certain is that you’d prefer not to deal with the uncertainty.


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