Saving Public Transportation and the Untapped Potential of Listening
A listening tool like a focus group helps transit agencies access important perceptions from people who are often under-represented in transit and urban planning. Photo by Felipe Paiva/WRI Brasil

The COVID-19 pandemic has made existing knowledge about how, why and where people travel largely obsolete. Even as some cities recover, travel patterns have changed. One thing is clear: around the world, public transport ridership declined precipitously and has not yet recovered. Average ridership in Brazilian cities fell by as much as 80% last year and ridership is still down 40% from pre-pandemic levels. Bus operators claimed a loss of R$10 billion in 2020 (~US$2 billion).

Any existing problems with transit service have a new layer of complexity as hygiene and virus transmission have become a top concern. In this new environment, it is even more necessary than usual to understand the point of view of the passengers – that is, to listen.

Traditional measures used to understand and manage transit services tend to be heavily quantitative and technocratic, focused on utility for the average rider and on vehicle operations, like ridership and dwell time. Even qualitative questions, like customer satisfaction, are regularly quantified. While these methods are great for making objective diagnoses and analyses and pointing out trends, they have limitations in revealing the reasons and nuances behind rider behavior. Adding qualitative context can illuminate underlying issues and behaviors that shape the amount of transit used and the quality experienced. Qualitative surveys, such as discussions and focus groups, help provide context that goes beyond the numbers. Unfortunately, this method is rarely used in the transit industry, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

Brazil in particular has good reason to understand transit rider behavior: public transport is a constitutional right. This means that, in theory, the federal government must assure that citizens have access to it, for example, by easing access to financing lines or subsidizing its operation.

As part of its mission to improve transit rider satisfaction in Brazil, WRI’s QualiOnibus Program has sought to demonstrate the value of qualitative methods to transit agencies and bus operators by riders to share and discuss their experiences using their local bus systems before and during the pandemic.

Listening is a powerful, empathetic exercise that enables understanding from different points of view and inspires innovations. A listening tool like a focus group helps agencies go beyond the “average person” to access perceptions from people who are often under-represented in transit and urban planning.

Recognizing Public Transport as a Public Good

WRI Brasil and Imagina Processos Criativos conducted  a focus group exercise in October 2020 with 12 transit riders from nine Brazilian cities. The selection prioritized people with different characteristics and backgrounds, who either continued or stopped using the bus during the pandemic. Rather than focusing on technical topics, the group explored the overall experience, pain points and untapped desires that could enhance transit’s image and quality after the pandemic.

The process aimed to initiate thinking about pathways and ideas for public transport to face old and new challenges. While topics and comments were varied, participants showed a keen awareness of how mass transport is perceived in their communities. One participant observed that he rarely saw messages about the importance of public transportation in the public or private realm. “I think the poor quality of buses, and the inappropriate attitudes in the buses [of both drivers and passengers], have become cultural, and we need to change that,” he said.

It was a mutual desire among the listening group participants to see a push by cities and transit agencies to raise awareness about the value of public transport riders – just as car drivers are valued. Cycling communities are growing in Brazil and elsewhere, building support to increase visibility and respect for the needs of cyclists, and participants wondered if a similar movement could grow for bus riders.

Despite the difficulties with their local transit systems, participants of the listening group demonstrated affection for using the bus. But they did not feel that their perspectives were recognized or encouraged by their cities and bus agencies.

Operators and city authorities have the opportunity to collaborate in the development of communication plans that show public transport as a priority. Successful communication campaigns help shift behaviors, influence language and feed everyday conversations. What if communication campaigns were carried out beyond the customers of public transport, toward the entire population? What if they had educational components and were available in schools?

Matching Expectations With Reality

The pandemic has added a new layer of complexity to achieving high-quality public transportation. But many of the points raised during the listening group were challenges and demands that existed before: crowding, harassment, complex fare systems and lack of transparency.

Listening to customers in frank and open conversation allows public transportation providers to understand expectations more broadly, deeply and humanely, and therefore to develop solutions that better reflect people’s realities and needs. Customers want to know – and especially, to see – that public transport is used by those who plan and operate it. They do not want a service planned for “others,” but for everyone.

As vaccine deployment rises, new challenges about recovery will also take careful listening. Because of the value exhibited in our demonstration, QualiOnibus member FETRANSPOR (the Federation of Passenger Transport Companies of the State of Rio de Janeiro) is moving ahead with their own transit focus group.

The ideas and reflections received in listening groups can support more effective service decisions and improve transit agencies’ connections with customers’ expectations. This connection is critical not only to ensuring the survival of public transport, but also to supporting its revival.

By listening curiously and without judgment, transit officials can learn more about people’s honest perceptions of the system. More than seeking a ready answer, conducting an open conversation can generate new ideas. This can be a transformative exercise for transport agencies and public transport operators.

The Mobility and Accessibility Lab is a project to improve mass transport systems around the world through local capacity building and action. WRI offices work in their countries to develop programs that improve the quality, accessibility and usefulness of mass transit. The scope of each project varies, but they are united in pushing the boundaries of what is possible under local governance to improve quality of life and environmental sustainability through transit. These projects are funded in part by a generous grant from FedEx.

Guillermo Petzhold is an Urban Mobility Coordinator at WRI Brasil.

Fernando S. Corrêa is a Communications Analyst at WRI Brasil.

Adam Davidson is an Urban Mobility Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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