Recently EMBARQ, a global network that is attempting to create more environmental and financially sustainable transportation solutions for the world's cities, issued a report on how public transit can improve ridership through more effective marketing techniques. This article is a brief overview of their recommendations along with my (mostly on topic) comments; the complete report can be found by contacting EMBARQ .
The report is divided into eight sections. In section 1, public transit systems are urged to build a strong brand and identity. In recent years many North American transit systems have made an effort to create and maintain a brand image by doing things such as painting their buses more noticeable colors and opening stores at which transit memorabilia can be bought. In Los Angeles, for example, Metro has painted their buses bright and instantly recognizable colors and offers T-shirts and other branded items for sale via their website.
Other transit systems are not as far along, and many do not even have recognizable bus stops, instead using generic "No parking bus stop" signs to identify boarding locations. A larger obstacle to the creation of transit brand identify than that is the sheer number of independently operated transit systems in certain metropolitan areas. Both the Los Angeles and San Francisco - Oakland metropolitan areas have more than twenty independently operated transit systems, each with their own "brand" and few of which actively acknowledge the existence of the others on their maps and schedules. The multiple brands confuse the public and work to prevent the adoption of truly seamless transit options in California's major cities.
Section 2 urges transit systems to value internal communication with a goal of increasing the morale of all employees, including bus drivers. Certainly excellent customer service attracts more customers in any industry; achieving it in public transit requires an organizational structure in which all employees feel that they can contribute to the success of the operation. Improving employee morale does not require a large marketing department or budget.
Section 3 suggests it is of vital importance to educate the users of your transit system early and often in order to create familiarity with the system. Teaching children how to use your bus and train network is a great way to instill a lifelong familiarity with transit. For service changes, transit agencies should communicate the changes to the public as far in advance of the change as possible. While many agencies do not do this, perhaps out of a fear that doing so could confuse the public, the experience in Santiago, Chile indicate that passengers understand 1) this schedule is in effect now and 2) that schedule is in effect later rather than 1) this schedule is in effect now and 2) a different schedule will be in effect later, but you will not know what it is until the day it goes into effect.
Section 4, titled "User Information Systems" discusses how maps and schedules should be communicated to the public. Wayfinding information should be simple but informative, and aim for a middle ground between providing too much detail, which confuses the average person, and not enough detail, which will not allow the average person to understand what routes to take to their destination. Effective signage is discussed elsewhere on my site, including here .
The importance of marketing campaigns is discussed in section 5, including a directive to tailor your message to specific user groups. The different kinds of transit passengers are discussed here . People are most likely to change their mode of transportation when they make major life changes such as starting a new school, starting a new job or moving to a new home, so it makes sense that transit agencies should focus their marketing efforts on people that fall into those categories.
Section 6 has to do with external communications and controlling the media. Because of the decline in newspaper budgets, few journalists assigned to cover transit know anything about transit. This deficiency greatly assists transit system media control efforts, as often these journalists will publish agency written copy with few efforts. More problematic are the plethora of blogs and sites, which are often critical of the transit agency, that have sprung up in major cities that are devoted to coverage of transit and other forms of transportation. In at least one instance a major transit agency has co-opted a blog that had been critical of its efforts by hiring one of the blog authors to write a blog for the agency itself. Overall, I believe that by engaging the public and at least considering the ideas of the transit enthusiasts that populate the transit blogs a transit agency can ameliorate negative coverage.
Public engagement is the central theme of section 7, which urges transit systems to "be responsive to riders." Allowing passengers to ride for free on newly opened rapid transit projects for a certain period of time is a good example of public engagement, and one that is pretty much universal in North America. Frequent surveying of passengers is another practice that makes the public feel more engaged, as is holding occasional but regular open houses at which the transit system shares what it has been doing and what is has been thinking with the public. The more the public believes that they are being listened to the less likely they will be to complain that decisions are being made by people "who never ride the bus."
In the age of the internet, it is of critical important that transit systems do all they can to disseminate their information online in ways that can be easily accessed. Section 8 provides suggestions for how they can do that, including setting up pages on sites such as Facebook and opening their core data so that developers can create new applications. Certainly Google Transit is a must: at the very least, the appearance of little bus symbols all over Google Maps will indicate to the user that transit is at least available. One note of caution: when setting up a Facebook page for your transit agency, make sure that it provides useful information, including detour and construction updates. A Facebook pages which merely exhorts visitors to go to this weekend's pie throwing competition risks inviting ridicule.
Of course, the best marketing in the world cannot cover up a poor product, which is why the emphasis for transit agencies should be on delivering quality service. Where marketing can be effective is when the agency is delivering quality service but the public does not know about it.