Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Transit 2.0" - Effective Marketing and Branding in Laying the Groundwork for a Popular Transit System

Los Angeles Metro's new marketing campaign (source: EMBARQ)
As we continue our series on what it will take to create a popular transit system in Baltimore, we turn our attention to the 2nd of five elements: Effective Marketing and Branding.

To be sure, marketing is only as good as the product or service being offered, whether it's pasta sauce, financial planning, or transit service. For the sake of this discussion, though, let's set aside any current shortcomings of Baltimore's transit system and assume for the moment that it is as good as anyone would want or expect in terms of convenience, on-time performance, cleanliness, safety, etc.

Instead, we'll focus on how a transit system is perceived by the general public and consider the following litmus test for Greater Baltimore:

  • What is the overall image of the transit system? Are the various transit modes - the buses and trains, the stops and stations, waiting areas, signage, logos, and customer information media - designed to have a consistent, seamless, and attractive look and feel? Is it immediately recognizable and possess a strong, positive identity that acknowledges the uniqueness of the region it serves?
  • How "user-friendly" is the system? That is, how is information about the availability of transit service disseminated and how easy is it for potential transit patrons to use the system and navigate from Point A to B? Is it clear, legible, and easy to comprehend? To what extent are the transit services associated with places and destinations to which people want to go to? How well are the services designed to attract and serve various market segments, trip purposes, and distances?
  • And finally, to what extent does it appeal to a wide audience? How broad or narrow is the market? Who is the audience - both existing and potential - to which the service is being marketed? In the post-war period of the last fifty plus years, during which owning and operating private vehicles became the de facto mode of travel for the vast majority of American households, the unspoken mission of most transit systems in the U.S. has been relegated to serving two, very limited markets: 1) "Transit Dependents" - modest income and disabled populations who are unable to drive; and 2) Middle-class suburban commuters who work in the central business districts (often called "choice" or "discretionary" riders by transit planners). Unfortunately, these combined markets constitute a very small fraction of total trips made by individuals each day in most metro areas, including Baltimore. The result is that transit systems have been a reflection of these limited markets to which they serve, rendering transit of little use to those who don't fall within one of those two categories. Similarly, the marketing and branding of transit has largely been a reflection of these limited markets, and the ability and availability of resources to craft an appealing transit image to a broader audience has also been severely restricted.
So, to these points, transit agencies have been missing a third and very important potential market: the growing numbers of Americans of all classes and ages who want or need to live, work, and play in more sustainable communities where they are less dependent on driving. The U.S. is undergoing an unprecedented demographic shift in terms of household composition and lifestyle preferences. Americans increasingly want to live where they can take advantage of convenient transit, biking, and walking as travel choices. These include young professionals, who are increasingly seeking out places to live and work based on the availability of good transit service and amenities within walking distance. Many of them can afford to own cars - and often do - but want greater options and less reliance on cars. An increasing number of them can't, as the continued global economic meltdown is making it more difficult for a growing number of Americans, especially recent college graduates who can't find professional jobs, to afford the $8000-$10,000 per year it costs to own and operate a car.

Baltimore has a rapidly growing population of creative class residents - many who have relocated from elsewhere to take advantage of proximity to employment and cultural opportunities, relatively affordable housing, and Baltimore's gritty, urban charm. Baltimore also has a high concentration of institutions and destinations which see millions of visitors each year from people who come from outside of Baltimore. Few of these are marketed as transit-oriented.

In addition, there are also untold numbers of working families, empty nesters, divorcees, retirees, and others who would consider relocating to walkable neighborhoods along transit corridors if the kind of transit available in those areas possessed the appealing image and functionality that American consumers have come to expect and demand. Few neighborhoods in Baltimore are currently marketed as transit-accessible or transit-friendly, even though several have good transit access.

Whatever the motivation for wanting a less car dependent living arrangement, it is also clear that most transit agencies - as well as regional planning organizations and elected leaders have been slow to recognize and embrace this opportunity to capture this pent up and latent demand.

So, rather than squander these unprecedented opportunities, it really is time for political leaders, transportation officials, planners, realtors, civic groups, developers, and business leaders in our region to start gaining a better understanding of emerging best practices and thinking on this topic, which collectively we can call "Transit 2.0." A critical step in moving toward Transit 2.0 is to begin focusing attention and making better use of resources on the incremental redesign of our transit system in ways that begin to capture this broader market and actually make transit cool. Innovative marketing and branding will be a key component in transforming our transit system's image and identity.

As a primer, a terrific series of reports laying out the case for innovative marketing and branding of transit was recently issued by EMBARQ, a relatively new sustainable transportation advocacy organization and producer of the highly acclaimed blog, Here are the links:

1. From Here to There: Marketing and Branding Public Transport, includes download link to PDF report

2. Best Practices in Transit Branding, Marketing, and Communications

These lay out a clear framework and demonstrate the benefits of moving toward Transit 2.0.

Finally, another great resource in understanding how perception of transit affects to what extent it is embraced or avoided by the public, is found in the unprecedented book, My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transit in America, by Darrin Nordahl (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

This book, the first of its kind, explores how the physical design and branding of transit affects the psychological and sociological decisions people make about whether or not to use transit.

One prime example in the book involves the feeling of visibility and openess of a transit vehicle. People are more apt to use transit when they feel they can see and be seen more clearly inside a transit vehicle. Humans are generally averse to feeling closed in when they are not in complete control of their surroundings. The size, amount, and transparency of windows in transit vehicles matter a great deal in helping people feel comfortable in an otherwise constrained setting.

"Advertising wraps," which surround a bus or light rail vehicle in a semi-transparent poster are identified as one of the prime offenders in creating passenger discomfort. These make it virtually impossible to see inside a transit vehicle and difficult to see out, greatly reducing visibility for passengers and the sense of security. In addition to the reduced perception of security, people also feel it is undignified to be riding in a "moving billboard", which further acts as a psychological deterrent to using the transit service.

Is the limited revenue gained through the advertising worth the lost ridership potential ridership and the lost opportunity to transform public transit in our region into an object of civic pride? It's certainly doubtful.

Let's end with this, to illustrate the point: Which transit vehicle do you think would be more appealing to someone who hasn't used transit before but is considering doing so?...

This one..

...or this one?

Next up: Dedicated transit lanes and rights of way.


  1. Great piece Stu! LA Metro does a terrific job at branding--one of the best I've seen. MTA has come a long way in the past couple of years but has miles to go. Some notable achievements:
    --adoption of "chevron" branded graphics for timetable covers; bus stop info boxes; and customer information brochures
    --deployment of blue "wave" design for hybrid buses (LR vehicles to come next)
    --classy new Metro entrance pylons at Charles Center, Shot Tower and Mondawmin
    --color-coded rail system maps
    --schematic London Tube-style bus system maps
    --prototype rail station entrance signs at Falls Road and several MARC stations
    --new station signage for Howard Street corridor with update LR icon, international graphics, "you are here" maps and signs featuring nearby attractions
    --new website
    More to come, but this stuff costs money. LA didn't do it overnight either!

  2. "MTA has come a long way in the past couple of years but has miles to go." Agreed, Henry! Thanks for sharing the list of recent accomplishments. Regarding the new schematic system map, could you have the Communications folks get it up on the MTA website? I saw the hard copy version out on the street nearly two months ago. It would be good marketing..

  3. I really hate to be "the bad guy". Really, I hate it!!!!! But all those things Henry Kay mentions are an attempt to graft a new image upon an old failed system. And money is just an excuse, especially as the MTA continues to see its farebox recovery rate descend into free-fall. Effective rebranding and marketing requires replacing the old system with one that actually works to respond to real needs. Year after year, the MTA continues to squander its opportunities.


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