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The Twin Cities Find the Key to a Happy Commute

October 10, 2014
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The Twin Cities Find the Key to a Happy Commute
A bus shelter can make a wait seem shorter, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota. Susan Sermoneta/Flickr
Improving public transit may be cheaper than previously thought.

Waiting at transit stops is hardly enjoyable. Between navigating crowds, dirty platforms and schedule delays, public transportation can be a lot for commuters to endure. But part of that difficulty may be just be perception.

A study from 1993 found that waiting just one minute felt more like 4.4 minutes of traveling — which means if it takes you 20 minutes to get home, it’s likely you’ll feel you should have been there after five minutes of waiting.

While more transit agencies are alleviating the problem by updating stops with real-time schedules, it turns out that the setup of a stop might make the wait a little more bearable.

According to an unpublished working paper from researchers at University of Minnesota, a stop’s amenities — such as benches, shelters or visible schedules — may play more of a role than we think. The study found that riders at a stop with no shelter perceived a five minute wait to feel more like six minutes, whereas commuters at other types of “premium” stops (such as those with shelters or full stations) perceived a five minute wait to be closer to three minutes.

Researchers surveyed 822 bus and train riders in three types of categories: no shelter (a curbside stand), a basic bus shelter (including a bench and weather protection) and premium stations (completely or partially enclosed).

“That’s actually a very good thing, because this amenity shortens people’s estimation of waiting time,” says Professor Yingling Fan, a transport scholar leading the project.

The study also finds that posted schedules are more effective at low-frequency stops while high-traffic stops could benefit from displaying wait times between arrivals.

While the study reaffirms there is a psychological component to good transit planning, the findings are limited based on short waiting times. Shelters seem to make less of a difference after 10 minutes of waiting, however, few participants actually waited for longer than that period of time. Posted schedules caused people to overestimate how long they had been standing at a stop, but after 10 minutes, people at stops with schedules began to underestimate the amount of time they had been waiting. For example, 10 minutes would seem more like eight-and-a-half minutes.

As City Lab points out, human tendency to round up numbers in fives and 10s makes it more difficult to distinguish the difference between eight minutes versus 10 minutes. The study also neglects to probe why covered or enclosed shelters are perceived faster than curbside stops.

But ultimately, the takeaway is that a basic bus shelter (which can cost around $6,000 in the Twin Cities), may be a cheap solution to improving commutes.

MORE: Public Transportation Is Getting a Major Makeover

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