The public transportation industry has known that the general public may have problems using transit schedules and maps. When a study conducted by the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at the University of South Florida in Tampa found a success rate of only 52.5 percent, researchers realized that the problem was bigger than they thought.
Their response was to conduct research to help them understand the reasons why trip planning is so difficult for so many people, and to identify the design options that maximized user comprehension.
This research effort culminated in the publication of a guidebook titled Designing Printed Transit Information Materials—A Guidebook for Transit Service Providers that provided a series of recommendations and best practice examples. Transfort, the transit service provider in Fort Collins, CO, used CUTR’s research as a guide to its “design overhaul” process, which was completed in 2008.
This article summarizes the holistic approach Transfort took to revise their materials, the changes they made, and the subsequent impact of these changes on customer satisfaction and ridership.
Marketing staff evaluated the existing information materials, which had been created in-house, and identified a range of design issues and potential barriers to implementation.
With these issues in mind, Transfort conducted a design “overhaul” of its printed information materials with the following objectives:
* Increase user comprehension of the printed materials;
* Increase ridership; and
* Reduce printing costs while adding four additional routes to the printed materials.
The Five-Phase Process
Transfort developed a plan to improve the design of its materials and achieving stated objectives, taking into consideration both internal (Transfort management and staff) and external (Transfort customers) input. The process also would allow monitoring of the impacts of the redesign on customer satisfaction and ridership. The plan consisted of five project phases:
* Secure internal approval
* Identify required design changes
* Design the new materials
* Market test the new materials
* Introduce the new materials to the customers
The agency made revisions to the materials on an incremental basis, beginning in early 2007, with initial drafts circulated among management and operators before being market tested to samples of transit service users and non-users.
Major changes included providing service timing information on the route maps instead of a separate tabular schedule and summary timing information on the route map header, as well as using the new Geographic Information System overlay map format for both route and system maps, combining the accuracy of the overlay style with the clarity of the schematic style.
Impacts of the ‘Design Overhaul’
The five-phase approach contributed directly to the high level of success concerning the three key project objectives:
Increase user comprehension of the printed materials. Market research conducted on prototypes of the new materials showed significant support for new design features, such as providing timing information at selected stops on the route map (92 percent support) and summarized timing and frequency information in the route map header (87 percent support). In the weeks following implementation, Transfort operators reported much lower incidence of complaints and requests for information.
The high levels of support for these new design features, reinforced by anecdotal evidence from operators and management, all point to higher levels of comprehension made possible by the new materials.
Increase ridership. Sixty-five percent of post-implementation survey respondents said they rode the bus more than they did the year before, when the old printed materials were in circulation; ridership increased 17 percent in the first seven months of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007. While we cannot be certain of a direct connection between these impacts and the revised materials, they do point to the existence of a causal relationship between material design improvements and ridership increases, even without the associated fare incentives that were a feature of other documented studies.
Reduce printing costs while adding four additional routes to the schedule book. Despite adding the four new routes, Transfort rearranged its route information into a more consolidated format that reduced overall document space requirements. This resulted in a new full-color, 24-page publication that cost 32 cents each—a 26 percent reduction in net costs, which in turn allowed for a new policy of printing schedules twice instead of once a year.
The agency was also successful in integrating the semi-annual publication of the schedule book with an agreement with Transfort management to make service changes only twice per year. This meant that the schedule book would now always be fully consistent with actual service, dramatically improving the ability of customers to successfully plan their transit trips.
Concluding Remarks and Recommendations
As well as consulting available resources on material design, it is recommended that transit agencies considering a design overhaul consult both their transit agency staff and the local riding and non-riding population. This allows both “real world” awareness of local design problems and potential solutions to inform the design process and encourages staff to become invested in the success of the redesign process; operations staff are often responsible for schedule design and budgeting.
The Transfort experience also shows that a major redesign must be accompanied by a marketing campaign that publicizes the upcoming changes and explains why they were made, thus reducing confusion during the transition.
While this project demonstrated that a design overhaul can improve customer satisfaction and reduce printing costs, there is still a major shortage of information on the impact of a printed material design overhaul on service usage. A commitment to targeted market research studies and ridership tracking before and after the design overhaul would help each transit agency—and the industry as a whole—fully understand and quantify the costs and benefits associated with the redesign process.
This article is a summary of the full research paper titled “A Five Phase Approach to Improving the Design of Printed Transit Information Materials and Monitoring their Impact on Customer Satisfaction,” which will be published in the Transportation Research Board’s Transportation Research Record later this year. The guidebook mentioned at the start of the article, and other supplementary information on its development, is available here.
Transfort's original system route map format. The schedule appeared separately.
The redesign combined the schedules and time points with the specifics of an individual route.