Making Public Transportation Sexy

You may have recently seen the advertisement from Danish transit agency Midttraffik, which introduces new riders to see their buses as refreshingly cool. Traveling by the bus is supposed to be so cool that you will be fighting to get on. If this ad doesn’t make you want to take the bus, then nothing will. Produced by Midttraffik’s in-house communications department, the ad aims to showcase the new buses that Midttraffik will be deploying on its routes.

Rarely does one see evidence of US transit agencies advertising in such a “serious” manner, with a strong push to get non-users to try their systems. From personal experience traveling and living in three major East Coast cities (Boston, DC, and New York), most of the public transportation marketing is geared towards current users, usually with the goal of providing safety tips or announcements of service changes.

This Danish ad piqued my curiosity about the prevalence of advertisements by US transit agencies, so much that I decided to perform a  YouTube search of 6 large transit agencies in the US. This unscientific survey consisted of searching by the agency’s name with the addition of the word “commercial” or “ad(vertisement)”. I used the results of the search term that yielded the most amount of relevant material. In order to be included in the count, the videos had to have been officially sanctioned by the respective agency. Not only did I not find many videos, but the total amount of views were quite low. The outlier was the low-budget ad by the DC Metro during the visit of the pope in 2008. The high number of views can be attributed to the controversy surrounding the video’s use of a papal doll.

Transit Agency Total Views (# of Videos)
WMATA (Washington, DC)* 119,241 (1)
LA Metro (Los Angeles) 16,988 (3)
SEPTA (Philadelphia) 5,417 (6)
MTA (New York) 4,123 (1)
CTA (Chicago) 4,030 (3)
BART (San Francisco) 3,679 (3)
MBTA (Boston) 0 (0)

Compare these numbers with a few European operators and you’ll see that it’s much different. Metro de Madrid has over 150,000 views from 4 videos and Transport for London, which is also tasked with promoting biking and other forms of alternative transportation has millions of views from its videos. Of course, this is not the best way to measure how well US transit agencies are working to market themselves to the general public. However, the fact remains that the US has a long way to go to increase the use of public transportation and part of this could be associated with the image of public transportation in the US. On a given week, only 5% of Americans use public transportation to commute to work. The top metropolitan statistical areas for commuting are New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC at 30.5%, 14.6%, and 14.1%, respectively. By comparison, a 2009 National Geographic report noted that 22% of Swedes, 20% of Germans, and 16% of British residents use public transportation almost every day. The same report revealed that 61% of Americans have never used public transportation.

At a time when the automobile industry is expected to spend $30.8 billion on just advertising, a 14% increase from the previous year, transit agencies must step up their marketing efforts to convince Americans to try public transportation. They will need to take more proactive marketing efforts to help improve the image Americans have of public transportation and to play a bigger role in controlling their brand image. Transit agencies will not be able to match the auto industry in spending dollars but the proliferation of the internet and social media has made it much easier to reach large audiences on tighter budgets. Additionally, transit agencies already have a non-paying means of advertising to the public – their own buses and bus stop infrastructures.

Already, some US transit agencies are realizing the need for a strong marketing effort. TheCityFix blog reports that after the Los Angeles Metro started a marketing campaign aimed at non-users, the percentage of choice riders increased from 24 to 36 percent. Of course, common sense will tell you that it also helps to have a great product. Although there is also a good deal of hype that plays into why so many people desire and purchase iPhones, these products sell so well not just because of Apple’s marketing ploys but also because customers are actually satisfied with their purchases. The MidTraffik commercial highlighted some of the features of riding the bus including a bus-only lane, comfortable seats, among other things that could appeal to riders. Agencies such as DC’s WMATA can highlight their upcoming real-time bus arrivals signs and transit signal priority for buses as features that potential riders can look forward to. With the improving economy, transit agencies cannot simply rely on the bad economy to drive potential users their way; they must make an active marketing push.

Stay tuned: In a future post, I will explore the negative image associated with bus transit and how branding of new bus services has impacted customers’ choices.

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