Understanding and Building Support for Public Transit: Socio-demographic, political, and geographic correlates of public opinion on transit

Bernasconi, Claudia, Kathy Zhong, Leo Hanifin, Linda Slowik, Krysia Bussiere, and Alanna Conner

This study represents an intersection of two areas: public perception/socio-demographic studies in relation to transit, and transportation planning and design. “The Transportation Planning Process Key Issues” report by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA-HEP-07-039, 2007) lists among the key factors for effective public participation processes the education of the public on transportations issues, the identification of techniques for engaging the public and the definition of methods to measure the effectiveness of the participation program (p.40). Other studies highlight limitation is current public participation efforts (e.g. Bailey and Grossardt, 2006) and indicate new trends for public participation in transportation planning (e.g. Innes and Booher, 2000) including interactive and collaborative methods. In a study prepared for the American Public Transportation Association, by the title “Trends Affecting Public Transit Effectiveness”, Hemily (2004) specifically refers to the increasing underrepresented populations and the importance of considering their needs for mobility, as well as providing access to jobs for low income groups. The complex and shifting contemporary transit landscape calls for a comprehensive study investigating the perceptions and beliefs regarding transit and planning initiatives for the definition of best practices for transit educational public opinion efforts and broadly for improved planning processes.

This study investigated public knowledge, opinions and attitudes towards transit in Southeastern Michigan, with focus on the understanding differences in perceptions and beliefs of diverse population groups in the region. The study included the design, administration, and analysis of a comprehensive public opinion survey (a pilot with 300 respondents and a full survey 800 respondents) including automated call and online surveys. Public opinion was measured in relation to travel behavior and transportation priorities, to willingness to support transit and improve its sustainability, and to perceived benefits and negatives of transit initiatives.

Findings highlight the political nature of transit issues, as well as the impact of ethnicity, educational levels, and urban contexts on perceptions and priorities. Results led to increased understanding of key issues connected to public opinion of transit and to the development of a set of recommendations for effective educational efforts in the transit field. Findings benefit policy makers, planners, community designers, transit agencies, and transit advocacy groups.