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How Metro uses simple psychology to increase ridership




Matt Sanderson's commute takes him from East Hollywood to Venice using two transfers. But it's the parts before and after riding Metro that can make or break his willingness to use mass transit.
Matt Sanderson's commute takes him from East Hollywood to Venice using two transfers. But it's the parts before and after riding Metro that can make or break his willingness to use mass transit.
Matt Sanderson

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Matt Sanderson's job is in Venice, but he lives in East Hollywood. Driving could take 40 minutes or more, he says.

But he decided he'll be daring – he's using mass transit.

"That would be, I think an hour and forty minutes to two hours, maybe," he guesses. "Yeah..."

While over half of riders don't have a choice about using mass transit, L.A. Metro is looking for ways to create more Matts. If it can convince people to not drive their cars sometimes, then it would improve traffic for everyone.

It will be a tough sell, however. Many people in KPCC's Public Insight Network echoed Daniel Chan who lives in downtown LA.

"I have clients in Santa Monica, and it's a pain to get there," Chan says. "If I imagine myself standing in a bus for an hour, I'm more likely to drive there."

That's a harder problem to solve: mass transit, at best, can move only as fast as traffic. Usually it goes much slower because of all the stops.

The only answer, however, isn't just to make buses and trains go faster.

It's not obvious, but Metro believes some people are turned off of mass transit when they aren't even riding.

"It's the nature of the experience that matters," says Metro's Diego Cardoso.

That means the stretch from when you walk between your stop and where you're going is extremely important, and could be one make-or-break factor in taking mass transit.

Metro figures people will spend 15 minutes max getting to a stop, whether it's by walking, biking or the means.  

Throw in obstacles, and that willingness shrinks. Maybe it's because the sidewalks are cracked and uneven, there are no streetlights or there is a lack of crosswalks.

Metro's plan to address all of this is called the First/Last Mile. It's a framework for what Metro suggests to cities to make the area and infrastructure around stops more inviting and safe.

A lot of it is rooted in psychology. For example, building more bike racks outside of a subway stop provides a visual cue to people that, yes, you can bike here.

It may also suggest investment in the areas around stations.

"Bike lanes on the street, some of the landscaping, businesses right next to the sidewalk" – all suggestions by Cardoso that he says can signal a stop is walkable and inviting.

It’s an effort that acknowledges mass transit is more than the ride itself.

First/Last Mile has already won a prestigious award from the American Planning Association. While it doesn’t solve all the hang-ups some people have with taking a bus or train, it’s a start.