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Long walking distance prevents people from using transit. Here’s how to change that.

  •   3 min read

Ensuring acceptable walking distances to transit stops is key in network design. Learn a tech-enabled solution that helps cities greatly expand the reach of fixed-route networks.

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There is a strong link between walking time to transit stops and transit usage: the longer the walking takes, the fewer people use public transportation. But what is people’s preferred walking time for transit services and how does that impact transit usage? And how can transit agencies improve walk times without dramatically overhauling their fixed-route networks? 

Understanding passengers’ walking preferences — for bus, rail, and on-demand — could help agencies identify transit gaps where fixed-route stops and hubs are not capturing enough riders, and leverage the right model to maximize accessibility for their entire network.

How far are passengers willing to walk?

A 2020 German survey finds that people’s preferred walking time for buses is 5 to 10  minutes — or approximately 0.25 to 0.5 mile. Less than 10 percent of respondents say they will walk for 15 min to take the bus. People’s acceptance of walking time also varies by transit mode: respondents are less willing to walk to reach a bus or tram service than for a train or subway station. 

Discrepancies are also seen in urban and suburban settings. On average, people from city/commercial areas have a lower tolerance for long walks to reach bus/subway services: they are willing to walk about 15% less than their suburban counterparts. 

And what about on-demand services? Across all Via deployments, the average pickup walk is ~550 feet, or 2-3 minutes. But as with fixed-route services, walking distance to pickup can vary by location and use case: more rural services can have average walk times of up to 8-10 minutes, while dense urban services may have average walk times of less than a minute.

First- and last-mile service in action.

At a time when agencies are looking to recoup ridership lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, a long walk to the bus stop can be yet another barrier preventing riders from returning to transit. But increasing stop frequency can have negative effects — particularly on travel time — and can be expensive to implement. With people’s travel patterns changing much faster than networks can be redesigned, it can be difficult to offer transit riders the shorter walks they desire. 

First- and last-mile on-demand service, designed to get people to the transit stations they need, can help. Robert Cramer, the deputy general manager of SMART in suburban Detroit, explained that their new SMART Flex on-demand service was “about expanding the effective areas” of the overall transit network. “You can walk half a mile pretty comfortably to get to some places, but if you need to go farther than that, it no longer becomes convenient for you to take FAST,” the express regional bus connecting Detroit’s suburbs to downtown. On-demand transit “can get you that last mile or two to your destination.”

Though SMART operates an extensive fixed-route network, only about 20% of the suburban area the agency serves lies within a reasonable walking distance of a stop. SMART Flex was designed to limit riders’ walking within 400 feet, or between 1 to 2 minutes, to their pickup points — a slightly shorter pickup walk than Via’s global service average.

People are willing to walk up to 0.25 – 0.5 mile to a bus stop, but if they need to go farther than that, buses might become inaccessible for them.

Since launch, it has greatly expanded the catchment area of Detroit’s transit network, with over 70% of Flex riders starting or ending in commercial districts or buildings that were not covered by existing fixed routes. Now, riders are able to reach the area’s popular destinations that were not easily accessible on existing SMART bus routes, including Troy’s Somerset Mall or Dearborn’s Greenfield Village.

The takeaway.

Planners often feel that there must be a tradeoff between providing fast, high-frequency service and providing coverage to all riders, even those in outlying areas. But there doesn’t need to be a tradeoff. With the integration of microtransit, transit planners can easily design a network with minimum walking distance, which makes transit stops more approachable and accessible to more people.

Learn more about how microtransit could assist your fixed route services and help overcome that first- and last-mile challenge, or request a demo.

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