Trees, what can’t they do? They shelter urban wildlife, improve our mental health, and provide the very air we breathe. And it turns out that just the presence of trees at a public transit stop might be enough to improve riders’ perception of the transit experience—even if the actual service doesn’t improve at all.

A study by the University of Minnesota conducted surveys of 822 riders at 36 local transit stations, both bus and light rail. The survey asked riders to record their perceived wait time for the next bus or train and compared that to the actual wait times, which were observed via video. They then factored in local environmental elements—air pollution, vehicular traffic, and trees—to see how those affected perceived wait times.

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Heavy pollution and cars speeding by made waits feel longer, of course. Big leafy trees made waits feel shorter. But it turns out that even if a stop had bad pollution and traffic, the presence of trees helped negate them and ended up reducing perceived wait times overall:

The results show that, for waits longer than five minutes, the more the environment is polluted and exposed to traffic, the more transit users tend to overestimate their wait time and that, on the contrary, the more mature trees are present the shorter the wait time is perceived. The combination of the three variables indicates that after five minutes wait, the presence of trees achieves to compensate the effects of both air pollution and traffic awareness.

The concept of perceived wait times is the subject of many studies because it’s a big impediment to transit systems gaining ridership. If a wait feels short, people who are elective riders are more likely to choose transit over driving. There’s a lot of information about how real-time arrival data influences riders’ behavior, and this is why transit agencies have been rushing to include it on smartphone apps and services like Google Maps.

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The trees are an intriguing twist. Trees can, of course, provide shade or protection from rain and snow, which are very practical reasons to plant them around transit stops. But the fact that trees can help erase negative vibes from a bad transit waiting experience makes it sounds like it’s more of an emotional boost. We should be working to release public transportation data for real-time arrivals, of course. But maybe all that transit agencies really need to do to gain riders’ loyalty is invest in some trees.

[UMN via CityLab]

Follow the author at @awalkerinLA

Photo by Indigo Skies

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