The Bay Area should follow LA’s lead to increase transit ridership

13 Jan

I spent last weekend in LA, and, as I often do, thought a lot about transit. What’s amazed me over the past few years is how much LA has expanded its transit options and how many people are choosing transit over driving. When I left LA in 2000, I could never have imaged that such a thing would take place.

Sure, LA still sometimes lives up to its car-centric stereotype that was so wonderfully depicted in L.A. Story, a movie made in 1991. In one of the scenes, a character gets in his car and drives two doors down to his neighbor’s house. In another scene, this dialog takes place:

Sara: What did you have in mind?
Harris: Well, I was thinking of taking you on a cultural tour of L.A.
Sara: That’s the first fifteen minutes, then what?
Harris: All right, a cynic. First stop is six blocks from here.
Sara: Why don’t we walk?
Harris: Walk? A walk in L.A.?

But in other ways, things have changed. The subway actually goes places you want to go. The Orange Line BRT in the San Fernando Valley is packed to capacity. (Yes, even valley girls ride BRT.) The DASH system in downtown gets you across town quickly, and for $.25. And Metro has huge plans for expansion for the subway and light rail system over the next 10 years, which when completed will serve nearly every part of the city.

So how did LA go from being a near transit desert to having the leading transit agency in the state?

Marketing.

OK, it wasn’t just marketing, but in LA, nothing sells without branding and advertising and Metro gets this. Take a look at this video that explains the novel approach Metro has taken towards gaining ridership (via The City Fix):

Can you imagine if BART or AC Transit embarked on that kind of makeover and advertising campaign? Of course, choosing to spend money on advertising is not an easy decision, as The City Fix explains:

The common perception is that money spent on marketing would be better spent on the transit systems themselves. The problem with this line of thinking is that it is short sighted. Over time, a sustained investment in marketing increases the number of people who use transit. Increased ridership leads to increased revenue and, ideally, an increase in service to match the new demand. That’s what’s happening in LA right with Measure R [the transit sales tax that LA recently passed]. It’s also what Clayton Lane, a transport expert for EMBARQ, calls “the virtuous cycle.”

Some riders are forced to ride transit because it is their only option, but marketing can have a huge impact on choice riders. The City Fix describes the impact advertising has had in LA:

The most impressive outcome of Metro’s marketing is that it has convinced people to start using its services. Following Metro’s re-brand, discretionary riders, those people who have the choice to commute by car or transit, have jumped from 24 to 36 percent. That is, Metro’s new clean and modern image is actually getting people into transit and helping address this city’s notorious traffic problem.

BART and AC Transit should take a page from Metro’s book and take branding and advertising more seriously. It could be the best way to increase ridership, increase buy-in to the system, and ultimately to increase local funding for transit.

13 Responses to “The Bay Area should follow LA’s lead to increase transit ridership”

  1. ralph January 13, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    maybe we should just blow-up AC Transit and BART and bring in the LA people. Boulder/Denver also has a nice public transit option. Bay Area is a lot of talk but little action. Our facilities look like relics of an era long ago. it is hard to believe that we actually live in the most liberal area of the country, feet from silicon valley but have the worst functioning public transit systems known to man.

  2. Tony January 13, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    I can’t remember the last time I saw an ad in the paper or a PSA on TV touting BART or any other transit. Even putting a quarter page in the East Bay Express would work, it could pull in the 20-something “save the planet” demographic.

    TriMet up in Portland has a fashionable branding scheme and neat logo. Even their lightrail, MAX, has a cute name. Closer to home, I’m not that fond of AC Transit’s logo for the Rapid lines. I like the look of the older green buses that run on San Pablo though.

  3. mark January 14, 2010 at 3:09 am #

    This is good stuff. One of the challenges here in the Bay Area that differs from the LA area is that many cities and regional agencies cling to their independent identity. LA’s Metro system covers a broader regional territory. It would be like combining BART, Muni, AC Transit, SAMTrans, CalTrain, and Santa Clara VTA into a single multi-region agency.

    A single agency can do a better job creating a compelling system design and reaching consumers (and discretionary riders) because it can speak in a single voice to a larger service constituency. The Metro’s Problem/Solution campaign works especially well because it’s simple, clear, and easy to grasp — partly because it relies on the iconic clarity of the problems pitted against an even more iconic solution — the brand of the transportation agency.

    I like a point made in the video: that the goal of Metro’s marketing is to create and support the idea that it’s hip to ride a cool public transit system. BART/AC Transit/ Muni, et. al. need significant branding work to cast themselves as cool. And by branding, I mean more than just the agency logos. I’m talking about the whole user experience with each of the systems. Right now that user experience is chaotic and generally unappealing. I’ve ridden BART since it opened in the 1970s. It was pretty cool when they first launched, but it’s gotten grungy over the years, and failed to keep pace with expectations of the more demanding riders who have a choice whether to ride or not.

  4. Andy K January 14, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    BART does advertise – Take BART to the Game, MyBART commercials. These are mostly on Radio.

    While the Bay Area transit operations could be better, I always shake my head when people make comments such as “have the worst functioning public transit systems known to man.” We don’t even have the worst transit systems in CA. Having grown up transit dependent in Phila. and living in SF w/o a car for several years, I can easily say that MUNI and BART are not all that bad. In fact I would say that most people in the USA would love to have MUNI/BART in place of their local transit system. I wish AC Transit were more user friendly – convenient.

    I would love better transit in Oakland, and I can think of many simple (low cost) things that would improve the system. However, we don’t have it all that bad compared to most.

    • Becks January 16, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

      Agreed. We have much to be grateful here in the Bay Area regarding transit. It’s certainly not the worst and I manage to get around pretty easily without a car. Still, our transit agencies have a lot they could improve on, including branding and advertising.

    • Kent January 21, 2010 at 11:50 am #

      While I agree that availability here is good, price is not. Take your example of BART and Muni. If I want to use both systems, for instance to go to Ocean Beach, and I start where I live in Oakland, then I pay approx. $3.50 for the BART ride to SF Montgomery or Civic Center, then another $2.00 (I think) for Muni N Judah out to Ocean beach. One way trip cost = $5.50. I could just as easily (and more cheaply) drive my car. How does that compare to LA? I agree with the previous poster who said we should blow up ACT and BART (and MUNI, I would add). All the systems should be merged, the functions consolidated, and transit tickets should be valid across all the systems. Otherwise they will just eternally continue competing with eachother for funding and put boondoggle projects like the airport connector on the table.

      • Andy K January 21, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

        There is much that could be done about pricing. I would like the ability to purchase a daily pass in SF for example. Also, I wonder if it makes sense to offer off peak discounts on ACT, or some kind of group pass.

        Several weeks ago, a group of us were planning on going to downtown Oakland at night. ACT – $18 round trip, 3 adults and 2 kids. Car – free parking – so the cost at $0.50/mile – about $5 round trip. No brainer.

        In NYC recently, my family and I got around on the all day MetroCard – $8.75 unlimited rides/person. Once you have this ticket, you feel free to travel all around. It was great. SF should have something similar. Not sure if this would work for Oakland.

  5. Michael January 15, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    LA defnitely has some good stuff going on with public transit, but the percentage of people that ride transit there is still lower than in the Bay Area. In LA, about 6 percent commute on transit; in the Bay Area, about 10 percent.

  6. Roobs January 15, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    I completely agree with this post! LA has done an amazing job of marketing and branding its transit system and BART, AC Transit, MUNI all should keep this in mind. LA has also proved to be very forward thinking. From the expansion of the Gold Line to the proposed Purple Line expansion (aka “Subway to the Sea”), LA is poised to bring a lot of riders into transit and off the roads. However, i think comparisons to LA and the Bay Area should be cautious. One good point is that LA really IS a large city with one transit agency. When they want to put a new transit line in, they dont need to get permission from jurisdiction after jurisdiction to cut through their territories, compared to the Bay Area.

    Also, i think you need to keep in mind the drawbacks of such a large area under one system in that it makes transit for long distances less reliable compared to vehicles. So if you live in SF Valley and work in South Bay, you’re more likely to drive compared to those traveling only from the Valley to Downtown or Downtown to East/West LA because transit that distance takes a long time (estimated 2.5 hours from San Fernando to Long Beach, yea… ive done it)

    • Becks January 16, 2010 at 4:43 pm #

      I agree that that complicates things a bit, though you might be surprised at just how many transit agencies there are in the LA area. Visit downtown LA one day and go to a bus stop and you’ll be overwhelmed by how many different bus signs there are for different agencies.

      I agree that people traveling longer distances are often more likely to drive, but I think something that’s more important to that decision making process is whether the person has to transfer and how seamless transfers can be. My mom lives in Santa Clarita and, before she retired last year, took the bus to work in downtown LA every day. She did that because she could take one bus the entire way. If she had to take a bus to the the subway to another bus, I’m sure she would have driven.

  7. Kathy Seal January 15, 2010 at 8:04 pm #

    I live in LA. Marketing and branding are fine, but they don’t bring about change. I participated in a committee of concerned citizens who organized and got lots and lots of people to insist that Metro build the Exposition Light Rail line. After a few years of hard work, we were successful. That’s a good way to get things done. Often officials want to do something but need the political heft of a huge mass of voters expressing their will to get behind them and make it happen.

    Kathy Seal
    http://www.kathyseal.net

    • Becks January 16, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

      That’s admiral work Kathy, and believe me, we transit advocates in the Bay Area take advocacy for new routes (or sometimes against new routes) very seriously.

      But marketing is also crucial and I have no doubt that Metro wouldn’t be doing so well without it.

  8. Kent January 21, 2010 at 11:51 am #

    By the way, I liked this video very much. Way to go LA!

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