Road to a Master’s Thesis: Idealog 2

This is the second in a series of posts documenting my journey towards a Masters in Urban Planning research project. This one dives into one idea (exploring mode choice thresholds) more deeply, including some thoughts on potential methodology. I’m still brainstorming other ideas and very open to being swayed, so feel free to share any other research ideas you may have in the comments!


The cultural desirability of individual automobile ownership is pervasive across many Western societies including the United States, Canada, and Australia. It is also beginning to take hold in countries that have an emerging middle class with disposal income, such as China. For many, owning a car is a symbol of success and a reflection of values such as individualism, freedom, and personal space. Regardless of how these values came to be associated with car ownership (e.g., through effective marketing or an evolved social zeitgeist), the allure of the automobile is undeniably on the rise.

At the same time, public transit ridership has been on the decline over many years, especially in the United States. Just as car ownership is seen as a mark of affluence, public transit riders have faced increasing cultural stigma. This is not helped by some transit agencies dividing their patrons into “choice” and “captive” riders, chasing after the former while providing the bare minimum standard of service for the latter.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, increased car ownership and decreased usage of public transit over time as a population becomes more affluent is not a sustainable situation in urbanized areas. Traffic congestion, risks to pedestrian safety, and greenhouse gas emissions all compound exponentially as more people choose to use personal vehicles for mobility. Dangerous street conditions and drying up of public transit revenue result in an even worse experience for those who cannot afford cars – a fundamentally inequitable outcome and one that further fuels the desire for more car ownership.

We need to find ways to change the incentives and desirability of car ownership. This can be done by improving the alternatives (making public transit cheaper, more convenient, and comfortable) as well as exposing car owners to more of the hidden costs (externalities) of their habit. In this paper, we explore the thresholds of several factors known to cause people to switch travel modalities. Specifically, we aim to answer these questions:

  • Travel Time: How much longer would an auto trip need to take to convince someone to switch to a transit alternative?
  • Travel Cost: How much more expensive would an auto trip need to be (including fuel, tolls, parking, etc.) before someone switches to a transit alternative?
  • Travel Comfort: What features would public transit need to have that make it more physically appealing than a private automobile?

We can start by identifying U.S. Census Blocks where we see significant shifts in transportation mode to work over the past five years. For those that saw shifts from public transit to private automobile or vice versa, we can compare their average commute times before and after the shift. (We’d also have to check if commute times were correlated with transportation mode more generally.)

We can also look at data from transit agencies that have enacted fare changes, to see how they impacted ridership levels in the year since the change. We would look for changes that led to significant increases or decreases in ridership and compare that with Census data on transportation mode for their region to see if there would be a correlation to auto usage.

We may also need to conduct a survey of people who have recently shifted modes and directly ask them about the factors that led to their decision. Within this survey, we can propose a few ideas to make public transit more comfortable as well as collect free-form qualitative suggestions.

Hopefully with these findings, transit agencies can be better informed to set service quality targets and adjust fare policy and amenities offered. This will help make their services more attractive and thus collectively start to shift attitudes away from our unsustainable auto-centric culture.

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