Unhelpful Word Watch: Captive Rider

Just now, in a LinkedIn Public Transit Professionals thread, someone asked how to describe a “demographic” that has a choice about how to travel, as opposed to “someone whose only mode of transportation other than foot is public transport.”  An engineer came back promptly with the common industry terms, choice rider and captive rider.  The second of those terms has always sent me through the roof.

Dense cities, as we know, have people who have chosen not to own a car, including me. These people may not have the option of driving for a particular trip, but their mode of travel is nevertheless based on their choice, not their “captivity.”

Even people who are too poor to own cars often have a range of travel choices other than transit, or may simply choose not to travel to certain places if the transit service is unacceptable.  In my own consulting work around Los Angeles, for example, I’ve sometimes seen indications that certain immigrant communities seem less dependent on public transport, and have heard speculation that this is because they tend to have large extended families who can help one another with transportation.

To call any of these people “captive riders” is not just insulting, it can breed a false complacency on the part of the transit agency.  There are very few riders that you absolutely cannot lose no matter how terrible your service is.  I’ve always felt that the best discipline for a transit agency is to treat all of their customers as though they’ve made a free choice.

I’d really welcome the views of other professionals on this point.

20 Responses to Unhelpful Word Watch: Captive Rider

  1. David Jaša January 24, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

    People who ride transit because they can’t afford a car will switch to car at first opportunity. Most of post-communist cities learned this hard way.

  2. Cullen January 25, 2010 at 6:39 am #

    Perhaps captive rider could also mean to transit agencies the riders to whom they owe a higher level of service because they are core customers. An agency can cut the service to choice riders with less social cost than cutting service to captive riders as the choice riders have reasonable alternatives.

  3. John January 25, 2010 at 6:41 am #

    So what do we call these two groups?
    -Car Users and Transit Users?

  4. David Jaša January 25, 2010 at 7:01 am #

    John, you’re missing the point. There are people, who can afford a car and yet they don’t own one or they do have a car but don’t drive to get around city

  5. Cap'n Transit January 25, 2010 at 7:13 am #

    I’m not a professional, but I took Eric Morris to task for repeating that misleading dichotomy, presumably at the instruction of his professor Brian Taylor.
    It’s important to acknowledge that some people are dependent on transit, but “captive rider” is just icky. Maybe just “dependent rider.” People who could afford cars, but choose to ride transit instead could be called “dedicated riders.” To preserve the alliteration you’d have to come up with a new word for “choice rider” that begins with the letter D. “Dilettante rider”? Maybe not.

  6. EngineerScotty January 25, 2010 at 7:48 am #

    Here are several groups to consider:
    * Those with the means to own autos, who do so, and who avoid transit like the plague.
    * Those with the means to own autos, who do so, and who will ride transit when it is more convenient (or cheaper) than the auto (often commuters, or car-owning residents of dense cities).
    * Those with the means to own autos, who do so, who are nonetheless dedicated transit users.
    * Those who do not own autos, but have the means to do so (and choose not to for various reasons), and use transit extensively.
    * Those who do not own autos due to economic considerations, would switch if they could, use transit out of necessity.
    * Those who do not own autos due to economic considerations, use transit, and might keep using it even if they were to improve their economic situation.
    * Those who cannot drive for reasons other than money (i.e. no license, medical reasons, under 16) and use transit extensively.
    Distinguishing between customers who have the option to go to the competition, and those who do not, is something all (competent) businesspeople do. Transit managers make different choices with this knowledge than do private enterprises–for example, the “transit dependent” aren’t generally subject to price discrimination which tries to extract more from them. But then the core question remains:
    If a transit agency is going to spend dollars (capital or operating) to make their service more attractive, in particular when the benefit isn’t one of coverage or mobility, who should they try to attract? New customers, in an effort to strengthen the system? Or current customers, so maybe they won’t hate the busses they ride?

  7. Matt Carpenter January 25, 2010 at 7:55 am #

    Rather than “choice rider” which has eliteist overtones, I perfer “discretionary rider”.

  8. marco January 25, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    If transit service is poor, some communities organize a parallel services based on car-sharing and privately-owned minibus.
    I’ve tried this in Greece, and I know it works quite well: Greece has a poorer service than most european countries, but has a significantly lower car ownership (348 cars/1000 inhabitants, european average: 495 cars/1000 inhabitants)

  9. Alon Levy January 25, 2010 at 9:11 am #

    Discretionary rider often means something different – it can mean someone who’s not a commuter, usually riding off-peak or during the weekend. A transit system attracts such riders with high off-peak service, and either lower off-peak fares or an attractive unlimited monthly discount.

  10. Herb January 25, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    “Voluntarily Transit Dependent” is used by our local transit agency.

  11. smh January 25, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    @marco: Do you happen to know what a statistic for the United States would be? Just curious, I’d like to know how many cars/1000 people we have. I’d think it could easily be over 1. Thanks!

  12. Jeffrey Bridgman January 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    Here’s an interesting entry in Wikipedia to answer your question. It looks like the ratio for cars/person is less than 1, but it’s still much higher than Europe, for example.

  13. Pantheon January 25, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    Jarrett, I am so glad you mentioned this. I have been looking for an opportunity to mention that “choice rider” is a term I find objectionable. It is presumably intended to indicate that the person is making an independent decision to ride. But to me it sounds more like an implication that this person is better than other riders, the way we would describe a good cut of steak as “choice”.
    Captive rider conjures images of people being kidnapped and held hostage by buses.

  14. Danny January 25, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

    Personally, I find this sort of segmentation useless in terms of running a transit agency. Segmentation, at least from a marketing perspective, is only useful if your segmentation helps you persuade new customers better or if it helps you with price discrimination. With transit, neither of these are really the case.
    I like Clayton Christiansen’s description of Marketing as a way of understanding the job people need to get done. While there are some people who will never be able to use transit for their specific needs, most people can if the transit system is designed right. And in this case, the job that needs to get done (getting you from point A to point B) is the exact same for people who have cars, people who don’t have cars but can afford them, and people who can’t afford cars.
    Sure, your elasticity of demand will be less for people who can’t afford a car, but this knowledge is only useful for price discrimination purposes. Seeing as transit is considered an inferior good (economic definition, not a personal judgment), the only way we could price discriminate effectively is to charge a higher price to the people who can’t afford cars. Even the most heartless person I know wouldn’t think that is the right thing to do.
    The best way to approach the problem is to treat all users exactly the same, and try to understand the job that they need to get done, and do it in the most efficient way possible. This particular segmentation does no good, and can at best serve as a thought distraction for transit professionals who can’t escape their simplistic theories to be able to see real life.

  15. EngineerScotty January 25, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    There are other types of discrimination besides price discrimination. One bit of grist for the rail-vs-bus mill is allegations of “quality of service discrimination” –providing a nice ride for the wealthy, and providing crap service for those who ride because they have no other real choice.
    Certainly, rail has some comfort advantages over busses (though choice and configuration of rolling stock and maintenance of vehicles and infrastructure, probably have as much of an impact as what the wheels are made of).
    It’s an interesting–and all too frequent–accusation. In some places, it wouldn’t surprise me that this is true; there are many parts of the world where the political power structure views the poor with contempt and scorn–not as unfortunates to be helped, but as undesirables to be neglected (see the recent comments by a certain South Carolina gubernatorial candidate for an example).
    OTOH, some of this has to do more with the lifecycle of transit vehicles. Many transit agencies now installing rail are buying new equipment at the beginning of its service life (as opposed to, say, buying used trams from Amsterdam), but have aging (though still useful) fleets of busses that run reliably, but may suffer in the comfort department. (Some TriMet critics like to point out that many older busses still lack A/C; though all trains and newer busses have it).

  16. stephen January 25, 2010 at 10:27 pm #

    I think the use of the terms choice and captive is a distraction. Why talk about captive or choice riders at all? What does a discussion of captive riders bring to the table that a discussion of coverage or social equity could not? If a service is productive, why worry about whether the riders have other options or not? If the service is not productive does it change anything to say that at least the riders are choice riders? I think the critical point that is overlooked by segmenting the transit market into those who are dependent on transit and those who are not is that transit is more or less effective at meeting specific travel demand regardless of the resources or means available to the user. Ultimately, transit should be deployed where it will be most effective. And if it is not, then it should be fulfilling a social/geographic inclusion role – which is a question of coverage. So again, what does a market segmentation based on resources or means available to a user add to the discussion?

  17. John January 26, 2010 at 6:36 am #

    That’s why I chose the word “users” to reflect what people actually choose to do, rather than what the can or cannot do.

  18. Alexis Grant January 26, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    Thanks for this post, Jarrett. I don’t like the term “dependent”, suggested by commenters, either. Even people who don’t own cars have choices (which, as you rightly point out, include the choice not to make the trip). My choice, in the ten years I have not owned a car, includes walk, bike, or transit (or don’t travel). I will choose transit if it is faster or more convenient or comfortable, so I am still making a choice.
    Many people do not like the “don’t travel” choice, but it’s a fact of life if you don’t own a car, or are on the edge and can’t afford the gas. Not all trips will be possible, or worthwhile.

  19. M1EK January 27, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    A “choice commuter” who you get to ride your train (or, unlikely, your bus) is also a voter who likely will vote your way on service expansions and tax increases. Even a “potential choice commuter” (somebody who now sees themselves as a potential rider) is a big win.
    The alternative, focusing on bus riders who have no choice, is a recipe for a dying transit system – at least in a growing Sun Belt city. Again, this is why Portland did what they did; it’s why Dallas and Houston have large rail expansions underway; and it’s why Austin doesn’t.

  20. will May 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Has anyone seen elasticity (transit to auto) estimates segmented for income level? Beyond the rhetoric, I think there is a pretty big empirical whole in efforts to understand the choices faced and made by “captive” riders. This seems particularly important when we make decisions that balance new investments to attract new “choice” riders at the expense of service for “captive” riders. How many of these lost riders go on to purchase, resurrect, borrow or share a car? Anyone seen any studies on this?