USC Price School of Public Policy

METRANS seminar reveals that transit attitudes matter

Knowledge in Action:

METRANS Seminar Reveals that Transit Attitudes Matter

By Cristy Lytal

Genevieve Giuliano and Steve Spears Price Senior Associate Dean Genevieve Giuliano and Steve Spears speak at a recent METRANS seminar.
Photo by John Roberson

A great attitude will get you far in life — and it will also get you far on the Expo Line, according to research presented at the USC Price School of Public Policy’s METRANS seminar on Oct. 24.

“Which Matters More for Transit Use: Access or Attitudes? Insights From Data From the Exposition Light Rail Corridor” featured new research by USC Price Professor Marlon Boarnet and two colleagues from the University of California, Irvine, Assistant Professor Doug Houston and doctoral candidate Steve Spears.

The trio of researchers took advantage of the opening of the Expo Line to conduct the first quasi-experimental before-after study of a major rail transportation project in California. The results of their ongoing research are directly shaping policy. Boarnet, who directs the USC Price graduate programs in urban planning and development, recently spoke at an informational hearing of the California State Assembly’s Select Committee on Rail Transportation, which was evaluating the future plans for Los Angeles Metro Rail.

Spears, who gave the recent METRANS seminar presentation, focused on the impact of social psychological factors on transit use, as revealed by the Expo Line study.

“Social psychological factors have been largely ignored in the travel behavior-built environment literature, and leaving them out has left us little knowledge of how people interact with each other or how their mental processes affect travel behavior,” Spears said. “And because of that, any interventions or investments we make could not be as effective as they might be otherwise because we don’t address the fact that people’s attitudes also affect travel behavior.”

To measure these important social psychological effects, he and his colleagues asked 284 households near the Expo Line to keep seven-day travel logs, provide information about the years, makes and models of their cars, and complete surveys. Half of the participants also wore GPS and accelerometers.

The social psychological survey asked 37 questions which fell into five broad categories: personal safety and security concerns; environmental protection attitudes; transit attitudes; perceptions of neighborhood amenities within walking distance; and car attachment.

The data demonstrated that all of these categories except for one — concerns about protecting the environment — affected transit use. People rode transit more if they had positive transit attitudes, perceptions of plentiful neighborhood amenities within walking distance, low car attachment and fewer safety concerns.

Spears recommended the use of these social psychological factors as “leverage points” to increase transit ridership.

“These are leverage points that could be used — trying to dispel some feelings people have about transit safety; generally improving attitudes toward transit service and convenience, which something like the Expo Line may do just because of the fact that it’s a quantum leap in transit; and improving the perception of amenities and services within walking distance of their homes,” he said.

Ultimately, improving ridership on the Expo Line and other public transit could support compliance with California Senate Bill (SB) 375, which requires the implementation of sustainable transportation, land-use and housing policies to help achieve regional greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Professor Genevieve Giuliano, USC Price senior associate dean and director of the METRANS Transportation Center, served as the discussant for the seminar.

Giuliano praised the researchers for making inroads in the field of travel behavior, which has yet to be well understood. She also applauded the researchers’ creative use of new technologies, such as GPS and accelerometers, which allowed them to develop a rich, reliable data source with built-in checks on the survey responses.

“This is really neat research,” she said, “because it’s at the leading edge of where the field is going.”