Is wait time a relevant factor when choosing a mode of transportation? Studies say yes, but what can we do about it?


The total time we spend traveling from origin to destination can be broken into different parts, each of which provokes a different sensation in us. For example, the walk to the bus stop does not feel the same as the time spent waiting for the bus, which likewise feels different from the time spent on board (especially if crowded). We are therefore compelled to weigh the discomforts of these various parts when choosing our preferred mode of transport.

Data shows that the most influential factor in this choice is open wait time (OWT). OWT is the time spent waiting for the next bus, train or ferry after having arrived at the stop. Note the following distinction – if it takes five minutes to walk to the nearest subway stop and five minutes to wait for the next train, nearly every passenger will attribute more importance to the later five minutes in his or her decision process, even though both blocks of time are the same. This, occasionally illogical, perception of OWT can persuade us to opt for personal vehicles and avoid public transportation altogether.

Further complicating the selection of transportation type is the almost inevitable distortion of open wait time. Though the length of time spent is always absolute and objective, it can feel longer or shorter based on our subjective perceptions. Public transport users consistently perceive OWT to be 2.5X longer than it actually is (Wardman, M. 2004). Circumstances unrelated to any particular mode of transport can cause this distortion to vary even more, e.g. climate and temperature, amenities, surrounding environment (safe or dangerous) or displays showing OWT itself.

The conclusion? If we can reduce open wait time or the perception of open wait time, we can encourage significantly more people to travel by public transport in lieu of personal vehicles. Easier said than done since OWT is so subject to varying perceptions. Since reducing the actual wait time will involve extensive operating costs and is frequently infeasible, we need another way, at least in the interim.

Enter: real-time travel information. Real-time travel info improves the experience of the passenger and therefore, the perception. It reduces perceived wait time which leaves users more open to the possibility of traveling by modes that are traditionally associated with longer wait times, when they otherwise would not. It has been proven that users made aware of longer wait times, or even delays, thanks to real-time information, perceive OWT to be more acceptable and tolerable, while those with unknown wait times perceive time to pass slower, even if it does not. In the absence of a real-time data display at each stop, operators can supply an accurate, updating online schedule instead of the usual fixed, static schedule (e.g. “bus comes every 10 minutes”) to increase ridership.

We live in a society where no one likes to wait, and time is scarce. Since we cannot yet decrease the actual wait time, we need to use the tools at our disposal to create the best user experience to ultimately attract more passengers: reduce the perceived wait time using real-time data to help more people travel faster and smarter.