Marketing Public Transit

Environmental concerns have led to increased activism in the U.S. and with all the conversation regarding fossil fuels and climate change, one would think that public transit usage would be up. But, surprisingly in some major metropolitan areas, it has actually decreased. Why? And what can be done to reverse this trend?

I recently attended the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Bus and Paratransit Conference that was held May 6–10 in Reno, NV. As a student of marketing at the University of Montana who has covered most of my tuition expenses by working as a bus operator, supervisor, and trainer for our student-run bus service (UDash), I was particularly interested in the ongoing conversations about how to increase declining ridership.

Is ridership up or down?

First, let’s take a look at where these changes are occurring.

Cities with decreased ridership include Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Austin and Washington, D.C., while Seattle, San Francisco, and Houston have seen increases. On the Here & Now podcast, host Jeremy Hobson speaks with Jon Orcutt, the director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter in New York. They discuss the differences between these transit systems, and explore possible issues that may be leading to decreased ridership for some.

The millennial question

What will it take for these needs to be met? Is this issue important to the most marketed-to segment ever- those millennials that drive so much consumer demand? With millennials accounting for $200 billion in buying power, this is an important question to ask.

Alan Hoffman thinks so. Alan is a lecturer in city planning at San Diego State University and director of The Center for Advanced Urban Visioning. As he points out, all too often planning for public transit is often done from the perspective that “public transit is something other people use”. But millennials use buses and trains more than their older neighbors, and therefore are starting to raise their voice in the conversation. They want more mixed-use areas that are easily accessible.

Read Alan Hoffman’s thoughts here:

Competitive forces at work?

One cannot have a conversation about people getting around town without mentioning Uber and Lyft. Have these services contributed to declining ridership rates? If so, should we worry about it? Recent studies indicate yes, and yes.

Concrete data from these two companies is notoriously difficult to obtain. However, a recent study in Denver found that a significant number of car service passengers would have used public transit if the car service had not been available. The study also attributed increasing road congestion with more Uber and Lyft cars transporting individual or small groups. Read more about the study here:

Aside from these infrastructure and competition issues, could it be that transit agencies have not truly recognized the need to market themselves? In the past, there has not been a concerted effort to convince people to choose public transit, and marketing has been given minimal efforts and resources within transit agencies, understandably so with budget constraints. As a result, promotion has been more passive and reactive than proactive.

I believe this will change in the coming years. Transit organizations will recognize the value of promoting their services. The most effective marketing will not compete directly with car usage (We are better!) but instead will emphasize the benefits to the passenger (We are so convenient!). There will be a focus on providing a quality experience, which is what most consumers are looking for in their purchase and usage decisions.

Transit agencies will utilize the data and technology available to them in a strategic manner that will yield increases in ridership. Apps will become a standard element in services provided to passengers and be coordinated with other community resources to provide more value. The best will contain entertainment content. These apps will also allow real-time reporting and resolution of customer complaints. The greatest value of these apps to the transit agencies, of course, will be the customer data that can be gathered and analyzed to further improve marketing efforts.

Onboard technology will also help provide a more satisfactory experience for passengers. Cameras, facial recognition, and other sensors will be implemented to make boarding and alighting faster and safer. Switching out diesel vehicles for zero-emission options will also motivate more environmentally focused community members to use public transit. Take a look at the changes my university recently implemented.

I predict in the near future, not only will ridership on public transit increase, but there will be a louder call for investment in infrastructure that supports mass transit and eco-conscious movement of people in dense urban areas. This will lead to better planning in smaller population centers and less dense areas that will allow smaller transit agencies to become more effective. This is an area of marketing for those passionate about sustainable living to have an impact.

Vickie Rectenwald has studied marketing and international business at the University of Montana, and is doing her part to raise a ruckus when it comes to sustainable living and business practices.