Increasing Public Transport Use with Smart Campaigns

Marketing efforts by public transportation systems are vastly outspent by those of the major automobile companies, which spend billions each year to attract new customers, says EMBARQ, a transportation think tank. In a new report, the group says worldwide advertising and marketing efforts among the automobile sector as a whole total $21 billion. General Motors alone spent $3.2 billion in one year. All these investments aimed at attracting new customers help increase car sales, but also boost congestion, carbon dioxide emissions, and air pollution, while working against broader public transportation use and more sustainable urban transportation systems. This is especially true in developing countries: Growing middle classes in these countries are increasingly drawn to car ownership. In Brazil, the number of privately-owned vehicles doubled to 2.6 million in 2010, and in India, there’s been a 20-fold increase. 

To fight these trends, EMBARQ says public transportation systems must not forget about branding, marketing, and advertising and using smart, creative, cost-efficient campaigns targeted at increasing and maintaining ridership. Transit agencies must focus their efforts on how to “attract new users that currently use private transport, such as cars and motorcycles; retain existing public transport users who might feel compelled to buy a private vehicle; and secure political and financial support from government officials.” EMBARQ’s report covers how to use tactics widely used in the private and non-profit sectors to focus on brand and identity; user education, information systems, and feedback tools, including online engagement; marketing campaigns; public relations; and internal and external communications. While public transport users determine whether to use a system based on its “reliability, frequent service, safety and cleanliness, service hours, and costs and structures,” public transport systems still need to do branding, marketing, and communications to increase and maintain ridership.  

On branding, EMBARQ says “to create a successful brand, then, a public transport system should start by defining its core values. Most public transport systems strive for a brand that clearly presents their services as modern, efficient, rapid, reliable, convenient, comfortable and safe.” The report further differentiates between different types of branding issues, from creating a new service to remedying issues with a highly unpopular service to unifying disparate services under one banner. They also advise against using some loaded, unpopular words: “Another way of avoiding the stigma often associated with traditional bus transport is to not use the term ‘bus’ in the new system’s name.”

Getting internal ducks in a row helps create a unified public message about a public transportation service. “In 2009, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) in Washington, D.C. resurrected a discarded plan to build streetcar lines that would crisscross the city. To build high-level support within the government for the project, DDOT created a well-designed ‘Action Agenda,’ setting out clear goals and milestones for the streetcar system. This strong internal communications tool gave life to a forgotten project lost within the bureaucracy, indicated the city’s commitment to the plan and created a common point of reference for all employees and politicians, including the mayor and city council members, to understand the department’s priorities. The first streetcar line is under construction and the surrounding residential and commercial development has begun to take off.”

User education prior to the launch of a new service is critical: “Citizens who consider riding public transport, particularly those who have the option to drive, can be deterred by the unfamiliarity of a system —where it goes, the fare collection, the boarding process — basically every aspect of using it. Agencies can overcome this hurdle with extensive user education, particularly prior to the opening of a new line.” In an example of successful user education, Johannesburg prepared its citizens for the launch of Rea Vaya, a bus rapid transist (BRT) system by “setting up a kiosk in a major mall near a future route in Soweto to educate the public and give them an opportunity to ask questions.”

Information about the system needs to be clear and uniform. As an example, EMBARQ points to Transport for London (TfL), the agency that oversees the British capital’s buses, trains and roads, which has taken a “rigorous and systematic approach to user information. Part of what makes TfL so successful is that it adheres to strict design guidelines across its transport network.” Design rules govern TfL’s “interchange facilities” and helped produce efficient, usable, intuitive, and high-quality signage and information kiosks.  

Urban transportation policymakers and design professionals may also be interested in additional areas on how to tailor marketing, control a transit agency’s messaging and “story,” generate and respond to user feedback, and use the Web and social media to reach broader audiences. A number of high-performing public transport systems may already be doing many of these things, but the best practice models are worth reviewing.

Read the report

Image credit: Legible London Wayfinding map / Dexigner

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