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?
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.