How often do people tell you that transport planning is a numbers game? How many people think transit planning is about modelling, data analysis and statistical assumptions?

Personally, I think it’s a relationship game, not a numbers game. I think we miss the point when we strive for ‘more people, more of the time’ and we focus on achieving a massive increase in mode share. I believe we need to care for and nurture the passengers we’ve already got. We need to love our existing customers like we love our best friends.

Relationships are important. An Australian friend still gushes about a British train being cancelled late at night, a decade ago, and he and other passengers being given a free taxi trip home. Little Jethro, who’s six and loves trains recently helped the Transport Minister open a new rail station. My friends who fly regularly care less about the cost and more about the cause. After all, posting a selfie with an Emirates loyalty card feels much better than posting a budget airline boarding pass!

Don’t get me wrong. We need the numbers to monitor, measure and evaluate patronage growth. But what is mass transit if the people we’re supposedly serving don’t love or like us?

Here are a few ideas on how to create trusted relationships in transport:

1. Let’s communicate with our passengers

I hate it when someone says they’ll phone and I never hear from them again. Communication is critical in trusted relationships. Years ago, I worked with an incredible traffic engineer. He’d pick up the phone and speak to every individual stakeholder and resident associated with his schemes. What happened? Everyone accepted everything proposed because he had explained what he was doing in a personal way.

2. Let’s educate our passengers about why we do what we do

Entrepreneurs say the best businesses operate by giving away all of their information for free (charging only for implementation). Let’s share our knowledge. Let’s tell them about why we do what we do. Let’s explain why the bus timetable is the way it is, why the traffic signals do what they do and why the bike path can’t actually be built on their street. Sharing knowledge is one of the best ways to build trusted relationships.

3. Let’s let passengers be part of our team

How cool is it when the barista at the coffee shop remembers your name? Does it give you a spring in your step for the rest of your day? It’s great to be treated well and to feel part of a team. So let’s follow suit and treat our passengers like they are part of our team. Perhaps we could share their photos of them taking the bus to the beach or their selfie on the train going to the theatre?

4. Let’s share our customers’ stories

I love sharing success stories – the tourist attraction with 75 per cent of visitors arriving by non-car modes or the school with multiple walking to school buses. Let’s share our customer’s stories. Perhaps about Paul who got his first job thanks to our new bus service or how John lost 10 kilograms walking to the train station? In turn, our customers will share our story. What’s better than passengers bragging about how they love their new bus service? Word of mouth is the best form of advertising, after all.

5. Let’s listen to our passengers

As transport planners, we’ve got big issues we need to solve: traffic congestion, the ‘school run’, low density suburban sprawl and the rising costs of new infrastructure. Have you ever met a person who can help you solve your issues? Do you remember how good it felt? Let’s be that person for our transit passengers. Let’s ask and then actively listen. How can we really help them? Perhaps what they really want is a coffee kiosk at the train station?

Transport is about relationships. Having a relationship with our customers  the travelling public – means a tribe of people willing to support us. It means recommendations, stories and commendations. But most of all it means the same people travelling more of the time. And, every transit authority wants more of that!