GET TO WORK: Understanding Austin's Car-Owning Public Transit Commuters | Skillshare Projects

Lisa Woods

Creative Director and Digital Artist



GET TO WORK: Understanding Austin's Car-Owning Public Transit Commuters

Week of October 21: 

Notes from interview with S.

Surprises for me:

  • as a former Houston suburbanite, S. saw/sees public transit, walking, subways, and working downtown as integral part of a cosmopolitan lifestyle
  • as a working student, S. navigates a complex work/school/home commute/out-of-town boyfriend with her own unique and morphing mix of bus/car/bike commuting
  • in a hectic day, a parked car can be a little private getaway from the world
  • S. relocated to be closer to bus routes

About S.:

S. is a 20-something working college student. She works in downtown Austin. Originally from suburban Houston ("where you can't even get to the grocery store without a car"). S.'s boyfriend lives 2 hours outside of Austin. She's lived in Austin since 2010.

Grew up in suburbs of Houston. Always driving.

When she started colled, S. realized tht parking would be too expensive, so she deliberately chose housing near bus routes.

Commutes from home / school / work during school semesters, and work / home only during summer. "I had more of a time gap between work and school during the summer, so I drove and had lunch at home. It was nice."

Process of Discovery:

Takes one of 3 CapMetro buses: the #5, #1, or #101.

Austin buses are “unpredictable” — you don’t know what time they will arrive, regardless of what the schedule is.

#101 is more predictable than #5, but half a mile to nearest stop. S. figured this out via experience and observation after riding all three. 

Driving to work can take 15 minutes versus riding which takes 30-35.

S. also commutes via bike some days. She came to this arrangement by accident. She was riding the bus to work daily, then was running late one day, and discovered that riding on certain days was actually better. She currently leaves her bike downtown for 48 hours on certain days and rides the bus on those days.

Private Time:

Driving is more convenient and efficient. Driving also allows for more privacy. Sometimes when running late, S. if she’s driving will stay in parking garage and put on makeup.

During the summer S. had a larger gap between work and classes, so she drove. She enjoyed the luxury of having lunch at home those days.

The burden of planning:

Buses, in contrast require the “luxury of time.” They have to be accommodated to. 

The planning required to ride buses can be stressful. There is a threshold of time to catch the bus. If she misses "the threshold," S. has to drive.


When she carries lots of stuff, S. “parcels it out. I’ll carry a little bit on my bike or by bus each day. But most of the stuff I carry is digital anyway."


If it’s really cold, she’ll drive. S. says she gets cold easily and doesn't like waiting at the stop during cold days.


Environmental: S. feels “wasteful” driving. “It’s just me using gasoline.” Driving feels “unnecessarily wasteful.” She wishes she “didn’t have to” drive.

Sense of connection: S. wishes that the “cultural norm” were biased against driving. Texas has infrastructure issues, but it also has a stigma toward public transit. S. in contrast, says that not driving helps her feel more “connected” to where she lives. “If I have to transfer buses, I live too far away!” She went to visit a retail job she had before in N. Austin. That was “too far!”

What S. likes about being close to downtown is a sense of connection. She says she’s much more likely to attend events “not important ones” but just “talks, or going out to eat” both alone and with friends.

Peer group norm: Most of her peers are college students and also ride the bus. One exception was a student who lived too far away to ride the bus to campus, so she had to pay for a parking spot. Eventually she moved closer to school and began taking the bus. Another exception was a student who is a mom. She’s the only other peer that has a parking spot for school.

Public Transit = Cosmopolitan: As a kid from the Houston suburbs, S. “romanticized” public transit. To her riding public transit—especially the subway—symbolized being a city dweller. She’d been to NYC as a kid and rode the subway. “It’s not a class thing, it’s just cool.” Eventually the novelty of public transit wore off, and was replaced by other cool city dwelling symbols such as being a pedestrian, working downtown. S. has been bike riding for two months now, and “it’s still a novelty.”

Novelty: The first time S. rode the bus, she was excited. “I’m embarrassed to say this, but I had no idea how to do it. How do I pick a seat?!” Since then I’ve seen many new college students getting on the bus for the first time and they do the same stuff.

Healthy: Biking is also great, not just because it still feels new, but because it’s good exercise.


Week of October 7:

Notes from interview with N.

Surprises for me:

  • cold was less tolerable to N. than heat or rain
  • he rode 3x/week not every day
  • evening time crunch was more bothersome than morning time crunch
  • not being able to find a seat was a major drawback


About N.:

N. is a 30-something professional male. Works in downtown Austin. Originally from Costa Rica (where the traffic is “way worse” than in Austin). Married with a young child. Has lived in Austin since 2005.

First rode the train when it opened, because it was the thing to try. He and his wife would ride it downtown to go out, and still do occasionally (“I wish it ran later on the weekends”)

When interviewing for downtown job, N. decided to look into the train for daily commute purposes. He lives off Braker lane about 10-minute’s drive from station.


Considerations for riding train:

cost: work offered either parking space or reimbursement for commuting (most employees at his company take the parking because it’s “more flexible”—they can use it for non-work purposes and times)

safety: After birth of baby, N. was sleep deprived and worried he would crash on way home in car. "They say it's just a matter of time before you get into a car accident. I know I sound paranoid, but I think about these things."

free time: was looking forward to 25 minutes of reading time

the environment: N. admits that being ‘green’ was not a high priority, but “[he’s] green when it’s convenient.”


What happened?

He rode the 8:00am train ("is very crowded") 3x a day (would have been daily except for the baby’s schedule was erratic or except for errand days) for a month and a bit less for a second month. The “final straw” came one day when he at work a little later than usual. He assumed that the train ran every 30 minutes, but was unpleasantly surprised that at that time the gap was a full hour. He ended up calling his wife to pick him up, and they made the best of the evening of it by going out to dinner. “By then the car traffic had died down anyway.”

“The end of the day is the most productive part for me,” N. said, and feeling pressured to get to the train by a specific time really bothered him.

Reasons N. no longer commutes via train:

  • money was equivalent (“I have an app that tracks how much I spend and how far I drive.”)
  • time was equivalent (about 25 minutes)
  • big problem: most days N. couldn’t find a seat, so he ended up listening to podcasts—which is what he does while driving anyway
  • some days it was too cold to wait at train station (rain is also a problem)
  • sometimes he needs to run errands after work
  • “And the wifi sucked. It’s really slow.”

Other comments:

Says coworker gets on earlier and rides for 45 minutes—”that’s a good chunk of time to get things done. Twenty-five minutes is not very much time to get anything done”—especially if standing.

Riding the train takes planning—both in the AM and the PM.

Was he angry when he realized the trains only ran once an hour? “I may have known that the trains ran less often at that time, but I forgot. And then I was like, ‘Oh shit.’”


Week 4/5:

I've had difficulty getting Craigslist participants to follow through with the in-context interviews. (Task Rabbit didn't work at all as a recruiting channel). I think it might be a bit too awkward to meet a stranger and have them observe you—even if there is some financial incentive. As I will be starting a new job next week and less flexibility in my scheduling, I'm going to change tactics and recruit for a few coffehouse interviews first. Perhaps once I've met a participant face to face, s/he may be more willing to have me observe him/her.


Week 3:

I took my first ride on CapMetro's Red Line this week to experience the context for my upcoming in-context interviews. I rode from downtown Austin to the end of the line in Leander at 5:30pm.

During the ride, I chatted with the man sitting next to me about his commute, talked to a student from Leander, and spoke with a CapMetro employee. I was almost stranded in Leander because I did not realize that the train does not return to downtown Austin at that hour! Luckily the conductor was kind enough to take me back as far as Kramer. So I had the *opportunity* to ride a bus from north Austin to downtown too :-)

I'm a bit behind schedule, but I've advertised for interviewees on Craigslist and TaskRabbit. While I'm waiting for responses, I'll develop interview my questions.


I was surprised by how relaxing and pleasant the train experience was. Clean, smooth, comfortable, very quiet.

Seemed expensive $20 for 1-week's pass. (Maybe monthly is a better bargain?)

Seemed very limited—I was astounded that couldn't get back during evening hours! Almost got stranded in Leander.

I am surprised that train goes from downtown to Leander and not from S. Austin to N. Austin. This would reduce the whole "I'd love to come see you friend, but I don't want to drive through downtown."

Almost no personal interaction with CapMetro. No employees at downtown station to help newbies, conductor is sealed away and is just a disembodied voice on the intercom.

No "conversational" seating in my car (e.g. seats in L formation or seats facing each other). I thought about this because noticed a group of 5 people talking to each other on the platform.

Bike racks take up lots of space, are inconvenient for people with bikes not boarding at 1st stop, inconvenient for deboard, I saw people standing in between the bikes—dangerous? 


Freshman at St. Ed's college rides his bike from home to train station, rides train for an hour, and then rides 10-15 minutes from downtown to St. Ed's via Congress. (What happens when his class schedule doesn't work with Red Line schedule?)

Spoke to a recent transplant from Arizona who said he started riding because of a friend's suggestion.

Arizona man mentioned that there isn't a Park and Ride at his stop, a popular one at Metric. He parks on long street he says is approved by CapMetro for parking. "I feel safe leaving my car there."  

Arizona man arrived early at downtown station because of the rain. He heard that the Howard stop was "turning people away this morning." Had heard rain could cause delays due to tracks being wet or branches obstructing the tracks.

Arizona man thinks bikes take up too much space. "Four people could stand there."

Arizona man mentioned that train has been more crowded since "school" started. I assume he meant more college students ride now.

Interesting quote: "If I pay for fare, I expect a seat." This stuck out to me because public commuting is culturally understood to be on a first-come-first-serve. This is in contrast to private travel like airplanes and Grayhound buses where people pay for a guaranteed seat. 


CapMetro employees riding train were discussing the design of the train car. "We get an average of 7 bikes per car." 

CapMetro has just been awarded $11M which is the cost of one train car. Currently CapMetro has 5 train sets and 1 backup. She is interested in making the new car "serve current and potential riders best." St. Ed's college student suggested double-decker car. CapMetro lady said railcar needs to fit under highway overpasses.



Week 2:

Below is my Research Plan in progress. Any feedback? Should my inquiry be more/less open-ended? Do all of the interviews need to be contextual?


Secondary Research

  • "People take transit for any number of reasons, but one of the most common is to get to work."
  • Residents of cities and lower-income neighborhoods have better access to transit than residents of suburbs and middle/higher-income neighborhoods
  • Transit coverage in Austin varies based on service frequencies, levels of employment, and population decentralization
  • "Public transit is seeing record demand at this point in time," she says. "I think people [Millennials particularly] are looking at transportation now as 'I use my car when I need it, but if there are other cheaper, faster ways to get somewhere I'll use that as well.' "
  • "Transportation leaders should make access to jobs an explicit priority in their spending and service decisions."
  • Transit officials should "collect and disseminate standardized transit data to enable public, private, and non-profit actors to make more informed decisions and ultimately maximize the benefits of transit for labor markets."



  • To identify and understand the impetus/motivation and the decision-making process of car owners who chose commute to work by public transit
  • To identify and understand the emotional experience of commuting via public transit
  • To identify and understand the activities involved in commuting via public transit
  • To identify and understand the family, work, and social influences around commuting via public transit

Focus and Topics

The focus of this research is on the work/home public transit commute—particularly the emotions and steps an individual goes through to find alternatives to driving to work. We’ll explore topics related to car ownership, car culture, in-transit activities, and job changes, as well as attitudes toward commute convenience, flexibility, time, stress, and environmental impact.

Activities and Method

This design research program will utilize contextual inquiry as a primary method (CI). CI will be supplemented with an artifact walkthrough and passive observation.

Design researchers will observe car-owning public transit commuters in their natural habitat, as they go about various parts of the commuting experience. The research team will conduct research in public trains and buses.

The team will conduct a 30-minute open-ended interview to understand the various interpersonal, physical, and digital tools used by commuters and will focus on the following:

  1. How public transit commuters determine how to get to work (which bus/train, what time, etc.)
  2. How public transit commuters organize their time around the public transit schedules
  3. How often public transit commuters re-evaluate their route to work
  4. How commuters manage unexpected changes (working late, inclement weather, unusual errands, missed/late bus, etc.)
  5. How other members of the household or coworkers are affected by public transit commuters

Participants and Context

Participant Profiles:
This research will include the Austin car-owning public transit work commuters detailed in the chart below. Individuals will be interviewed during commute.

Challenges: Challenges include coordinating times and locations for meetings, developing trust with participants, maintaining participants’ privacy of home and place of work locations, dealing with possibly crowded and noisy conditions. Interviewees’ regular routine will be disrupted by presence of interviewee. Weekday interviewees will be either time crunched on way to work or tired after full day at work. Shorter commutes will result in shorter interview sessions.

Session Details: Each participant will participate in 2 interview sessions. The first will be conducted at a coffeehouse to establish rapport and will last approximately 30 minutes. The second session will be on public transit and will vary in duration based on the commute.


This research will be conducted starting on September 9, 2013.

Week 1 - September 9-13:
Observation trips on public busses and trains (minimum 2 morning and 2 evening commutes)
• Recruiting for participants via Craigslist

Week 2 – September 16-20:
• Interview 3- 4 commuters
• Continue recruiting as necessary (Craigslist or participant referral)
• Transcribe notes

Week 3 – September 23-27:
• Interview 3-4 commuters
• Continue recruiting as necessary (Craigslist or participant referral)
• Transcribe notes

Week 4 – September 30-October 4:
• Interview 3-4 commuters
• Continue recruiting as necessary (Craigslist or participant referral)
• Transcribe notes

Week 5 – October 7-11:
• Synthesize findings

[[TO BE COMPLETED: Discussion Guide / Script]]


Week 1:

I'm excited to be embarking on this design research project. This is something I want to be an integral part of my design process, so although I have not a clue what I'll be resarching yet, I embrace the uncertainty! Let's see where it leads...

Bought boards for posting up ideas and a stack of multicolored Postits:

beginner's mind


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