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Watching passengers: Using structured observation methods on public transport

Russell, Marie

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Marie Russell


Direct observation of human behaviour is used in many disciplines. Ethnographic observation, a qualitative method, has been used successfully in public transport passenger studies. Structured observation is an unobtrusive method which can yield large amounts of quantitative data. This paper discusses structured observation as a research method with public transport passengers.

Designing a structured observation study requires decisions about (1) sampling: what kinds of passengers to observe, what modes and routes, times of day, week, and season to conduct observations; (2) categories: what behaviours and factors to observe; (3) data collection: how will behaviours and other data be recorded; and (4) analysis and reporting.

The paper compares and critiques four recent studies which used structured observations to examine passengers’ travel time activities: by Timmermans and Van der Waerden (2008); Ohmori and Harata (2008); Thomas (2009); and the author of this paper (Russell, In Press).

One of the areas of practical difficulty is data collection. Observing seated passengers on a long train or ferry journey may be relatively easy, but the crowding and intense activity on a rush-hour bus make methodical data collection very challenging.

A structured observation study of public transport passengers can only answer questions about manifest behaviour; it tells us nothing about motivations, feelings or attitudes. Those topics can only be deeply understood through non-observational research methods. But as well as providing extensive data, the experience of structured observation field work gives an excellent background to researchers wishing to understand the everyday experiences of passengers.


Russell, M. (2011, January). Watching passengers: Using structured observation methods on public transport. Paper presented at 43rd Universities Transport Study Group Conference, Milton Keynes, UK

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name 43rd Universities Transport Study Group Conference
Conference Location Milton Keynes, UK
Start Date Jan 5, 2011
End Date Jan 7, 2011
Publication Date Jan 1, 2011
Publicly Available Date Jun 8, 2019
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Keywords passengers, structured observation methods, public transport
Public URL
Additional Information Title of Conference or Conference Proceedings : 43rd Universities Transport Study Group Conference


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