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Riders Overestimate Wait Times at Bus, Rail Stops; Basic Amenities, Countdown Clocks, Trees Help


Waiting at a bus stop or a subway station, it can feel like the minutes stretch on forever, forever, forever, foooooooorever, for-ev-er before the train or bus finally (finally!) arrives. This isn’t because your local transit agency is conspiring to make your life miserable. Your brain perceives the minutes spent waiting as longer than they actually are.

Studies of transit riders’ perception of time have found that people unconsciously multiple their wait times by a factor of 1.2 to 2.5. In this time warp, a five-minute wait can feel like it takes anywhere from six minutes to 12.5 minutes.

The vibe at the stop can make time feel even longer, too. Say a woman’s waiting for a bus at a stop where she feels unsafe. In this situation, time can feel three times as long. That woman might tell you she’d been there for about 30 interminable minutes, when only 10 minutes had passed.

Even under normal circumstances, though, transit riders hate waiting. “People actually consider waiting at the bus stop for buses as among the most unhappy moments of their life,” says Yingling Fan, an University of Minnesota associate professor who specializes in planning and policy.

Transit agencies do already have one proven strategy for mollifying the masses. Tell us exactly how long we have to wait, and we will quietly accept it, which is why transit agencies across the country have started installing wait-time clocks. … But these clocks are not a cure-all, in part because they can be expensive to install.

Market researchers have also spent years developing tricks to make waiting less terrible. …[S]tation designs can mitigate the exasperation of waiting and make people perceive the passage of time at a more-or-less normal rate. What they’re finding promises a better world for transit riders, because, according to their research, making wait times more bearable is quite simple. They’ve already identified one secret weapon in the fight against tedium—trees.

They began by choosing 36 rail and bus stations in the Twin Cities, in residential and commercial areas, in both urban and suburban neighborhoods. At each station, they documented the waiting area and the surrounding environment. Was there seating? Water fountains? Restrooms? How clean was the station? Was route info clearly posted? How wide was the street? How heavy was the traffic? Was it noisy? Were there landmarks around? Trees? Trash and graffiti?

They also observed the people waiting at the stop. A research assistant would find a discreet place to set up a camera and film riders while they waited. This video could be used to document all sorts of variables about the study subjects … .Most importantly, though, it allowed the researchers to measure the actual time people spent waiting at the station.

When the bus or train arrived, another team of research assistants would board along with the riders and ask them to fill out research surveys. The first and key question: How long did you spend waiting for the bus or train?

Across the more than 800 people who were included in the study, the average wait was 5.57 minutes. But the riders believed they had waited significantly longer. When the team analyzed riders’ reported wait times, they found their research subjects’ perceived wait times averaged out at 6.78 minutes.

What the researchers were really interested in, though, were possible connections between reported wait time and characteristics of the station or stop. And they did find some factors that were associated with more accurate perceptions of wait times.

The first was very simple. Basic amenities—a bench and a shelter—meant “significant reductions in reported wait time.” In other words, if people had a place to sit and a shelter, their wait didn’t feel quite so long. …

In a second study, Fan and her colleagues looked at environment around the stop. There, they found that if people were waiting for more than five minutes, high air pollution or traffic tended to push people to overestimate, even more dramatically, how long they were waiting.

On the flip side, though, people waiting at stops in tree-heavy areas didn’t feel like they were waiting all that long. Sometimes they even underestimated how long they had been waiting. The longer they were waiting, too, the more difference the trees made.

As simple as this finding is, it creates a bit of a conundrum for transit agencies. Usually, the duties of getting people places and planting trees are divided, and a transit agency wouldn’t have much to do with the tree cover around its stations.

But the Minnesota’s team research suggests that perhaps they should get into this business, or at least start inter-agency partnerships to get more trees near bus stops. If trees can actually make people underestimate their wait times, that is a powerful kind of time-warping magic.

Laskow is a staff writer at Atlas Obscura, a collaborative website that features blogs, articles and photos about far-flung places worldwide and explores off-the-beaten-track topics. Reprinted and excerpted for length with permission.

“Commentary” features points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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