I was spurred in to thinking about this by a recent presentation at Greater Riverside Transportation Now! An RTA representative, Virginia Werly, was on hand to talk about a new travel training program put on by the agency under a new grant agreement with RCTC and the FTA. The agency will send out a bus and some staff to senior centres around the service area in order to get people familiar with how to plan trips on the fixed-route transit system, and then will provide them a free 30-day pass in order to encourage them to put these skills in to practise as well as to asses how well they are doing so. The thinking behind the program is that it would reduce the cost of providing Dial-A-Ride service to the local senior population by shifting their travel onto cheaper fixed-route transit. (One of the things I learned at the meeting is just how frakkin' expensive Dial-A-Ride service is, but I'll cover that some other time.)
At the meeting, however, I brought up the idea of expanding this sort of travel training program to the general public, or at least to specific populations such as college and university students. Obviously, the agency cost argument wouldn't be there, as the transportation alternative for pretty much anyone who's not elderly or disabled is the private car, but it would be a tool that could help increase ridership and reduce automobile dependency. According to The Atlantic, some researchers in Sweden had a similar idea. Turns out that drivers expect to dislike transit before they use it, but once they do, they rate the experience much higher than they originally expected- and their ratings increased with time. I've said similar things in the past- people perceive the typical city bus as a dirty, dangerous place full of freaks and weirdos, but the reality of riding the bus is markedly different.
The key here, I think, lies in the free transit passes. Each of the people in the study was interested in changing their transportation behaviour, and was given a way to do so- a 30-day transit pass. Accordingly, their transition to transit was made a bit less costly. Couple that with even a mild form of travel training- perhaps a brochure explaining the use of Google Transit and 511- and most people would probably find discovering transit simple. And, once they've discovered transit, they're probably likely to stick with it- I know of at least four people in my personal life who I've convinced to switch to transit, and they're all still sticking with it. (It didn't take much more convincing beyond "I'm sorry to hear about your commute. Have you considered taking the bus/train? It's easy, and there's a route that serves your needs.") Best of all, it would cost essentially nothing. The great strength of transit lies in the fact that the marginal cost of each new rider is essentially zero. If a rider uses the pass a lot and becomes a transit convert, great! Ridership! If they don't, all you've spent on them is the cost of the pass stock and glossy brochure.