Using design to increase the MRT Systems’ ridership

Travel behavior is a complex phenomenon in which many factors have a play. Characteristics of the built environment, but also economic, social, and psychological factors affect the people’s mode selection. According to a recent study by Spears, S., Houston, D. and Boarnet, M.

“Perceptions of the built environment and of transit system attributes appear to play a significant role in transit use that is independent of objectively measured attributes such as level of service, employment accessibility, or security”.

They suggest that attitudes and perceptions towards different travel modes and safety concerns had significant impacts on whether or not a person rode mass transit. This study also remarks the relevance of working to change people’s perceptions and promote positive attitudes toward sustainable transport modes.

In order to increase ridership and to promote a positive attitude towards MRT systems we should think of several approaches.  Public transport has been stigmatized in some cities, where it is considered as a mode for those that can’t afford a car. This image can be changed if the MRT managing agencies improve key aspects of the stations and service with some design help.

Factors like frequency, access, and any other service qualities could make riding MRT as convenient as driving, but there are other elements that could make it attractive. MRT agencies have to keep in mind that the service provided is for customers with different needs and commuting expertise.

Stations design

Regarding the location of the stations we should consider elements such as neighborhood walkability, nearby traffic volume, station accessibility, rush-hour service levels, land use and navigation friendliness in the station. Especially in those stations where several lines meet and several bus routes have stops.

Intermodality and connectivity are great to encourage ridership in sustainable modes. These are great elements if done in a seamless approach, and if it is comprehensible for the users how to switch between buses, trains, trams and bikes. Elements like signage, wayfinding, maps, bike racks and information about transfers are vital, as it is also to shorten the transfer distance and time.

Finding the way to the platforms should be evident and self-explanatory. Some agencies that have space for retail failed to understand that their customers are not the shops but the riders, making the access to the platform a huge labyrinth through the halls where the shops are.

The size of the entrance and the signs to locate it do not correspond to the size of a rail station.

The size of the entrance and the signs to locate it do not correspond to the size of a rail station.

This is the case of the commuter rail in Mexico City (Tren Suburbano). Finding the entrance to the station might be challenging, but even more is finding the way to the platform. The inconvenient design of the stations hinders the access to the trains. The way to the train has become obnoxious. The commuters are forced to walk into the halls of the shops to find their way to the platforms. If you are in a rush, this is certainly not appealing. More photos can be found here.

In contrast, a great best practice can be found in the Roedelheim commuter rail station in Frankfurt. The S-bahn (commuter rail) can be boarded within 70 meters from the bus stops. It is at the street level, barrier free and provides direct access to the platform. It also has shops near the station but these are not in the way of the riders. More photos about this station are accessible here.

Roedelheim Intermodality

A seamless transfer between sustainable transport modes is easily done. The platform is at the street level, as the fare collection machines and information.

MRT requires design to better fulfill the passenger needs. The commuters appreciate information, direct access, short waiting times, etc… Using basic design principles instead of engineering is the steadiest track to improve the passenger MRT experience.

Design thinks of the end user of the product. They work with functionally, usability, user-friendliness.

The MRT systems ought to incorporate the four pleasures to improve the user experience of their service. The Physio-pleasure, social-pleasure, psychological-pleasure and ideal-pleasure, that Lionel Tiger proposed in The pursuit of pleasure, can certainly deliver an overall experience improvement.

The physio-pleasure refers to the body and the perceptions through the sensory organs. The commuting ride issues signals to the senses. A clean station and train, without unpleasant smells, with a place to sit, with easy access and user-friendly would always be appreciated. The social-pleasure is related to the enjoyment derived from relationships with others. As argued in a previous post here, commuters do care about fellow passengers. Regarding the psychological pleasure, there is no need to stress out the riders. MRT agencies can help to make the payment, boarding and transfer processes easier by providing information and signage to reduce the commuter frustration due to time loss and difficult navigation in the stations. Finally, the ideo-pleasure pertains to the people’s values. Therefore, the MRT agencies can highlight advantages of commuting by rail. Some aspects to be emphasized could be: environmental friendliness, sustainability, energy efficiency, space efficiency, the advantages of reading, napping, no parking stress, no driving stress, faster than by car (this one only if true, of course)!

A respectful and friendly atmosphere in the system would overall improve customer satisfaction and perception. Here is a nice effort by the RATP in Paris.

On-board design

MRT can attract more users: 1) if bicycles are allowed on-board, 2) if there is enough space for strollers 3) if accessibility is granted (barrier free stations are important) and 4) if there are some available sits (this might seem like a failure for transport engineers but riders would appreciate it) and 5) if the user has enough information for their trip.

Moreover, for those who are no so acquainted with the system providing information about the next stop and the available connections can make the ride more pleasant.


The MRT agency should provide a distinctive image for the customers. A logo, marketing campaign, uniforms for employees and common design elements can help the riders to easily understand how to move along and within the system.

Creative elements could improve the image of the MRT system. For instance, customers should find the logo, the name, and the line in a homogenous manner in all the stations.

Promoting MRT more effectively, marketing campaigns and a rebranding effort could enhance the image and attract new riders who would increase a demand for service. This would lead to additional service offered and encourage more ridership.

A great effort was done by Metro Los Angeles. You can watch it here:

Metro L.A. also highlighted the advantages of commuting with them, as discussed above in the Ideo-pleasure, through  their “opposites campaign“.

Improving the environment and system friendliness can certainly enhance the customer experience, attract new riders and make a good impression on occasional riders. MRT systems are long-term investments that become part of the city’s daily life. Many stations are iconic or recognizable landmarks, but service is not always the case.