Public transit systems are an important part of urban infrastructure, providing accessible transit for a city’s population. These systems also reduce a population’s reliance on automobiles, meaning less air pollution, less congestion, less noise, fewer traffic accidents, decreased energy dependence, even lower obesity rates (Poudenx 2008).
Buses are the backbone of many cities’ transportation systems because they require less initial investment and offer more flexibility. There are many social, environmental and financial benefits to increased bus ridership, yet in the United States only 1.5% of the population rides, compared to 15% in Canada and Western Europe (Poudenx).
The staggering difference can be attributed to mass transit systems and city buses’ image problem. Cities tend to under-invest in buses and fail to consider the needs of their riders, thereby driving their customers to only use buses as a last resort (Garrett 1999). If bus systems want to attract riders who take the bus by choice, otherwise known as discretionary riders, they need to make their services more attractive than available alternatives. The question is then, how do they do that, and why should we, as marketers, care?
1. Functional and Design Improvements
Bus exteriors do not have to be unattractive, but so often, they are. The design of city buses should not only be modern and attractive, but also remind people of commuter trains, which are perceived as higher-quality services (Cain 2013). The interiors should be well-lit, aesthetically pleasing—from the color scheme to the upholstery patterns—and clean. For instance, Washington, D.C.’s Circulator bus, even changeding the identifiers of the its routes from numbers to colors to improve citizens’ experience.
Increased reliability and shortened travel times are paramount to attract discretionary riders. Real-time route information (RTI) systems accessible via mobile phones have the potential to alleviate the stress involved with bus travel. In New York City for example, ridership levels increased between 1.7% and 2.3% as a result of the implementation of an RTI system (Brakewood 2015).
Taking it one step further, creating exclusive lanes for buses drastically improves travel times and reliability while improving the overall perceptions of buses by making them appear more like light-rail modes of transit (Cain 2013).
2. Creating an Emotional Connection and Strengthening the Brand
Advertising and marketing can be used to improve the public’s perception of buses by communicating the brand and its many benefits. For example, in Reykjavik, Iceland, Strætó used every available piece of ad inventory on its buses and other facilities to promote the message that bus service “was no longer about us; it was about...the passenger.” These ads, delivered with humor, were used to educate customers about the benefits of taking the bus and to strengthen the Strætó brand. As a result, ridership increased 25% while fares were simultaneously raised.
3. Using Technology to Entertain and Engage
Improving the perception of buses also introduces a host of new ways for brands and advertisers to connect with a captive consumer audience, which may not be feasible if buses are perceived as inferior. In Seoul, Hyundai Card Co. and Seoul Metropolitan Government installed 12 bus shelters with LED screens, allowing them to display news, weather and bus information in real time. Not only did it improve bus service for passengers, but it also became a must-see attraction for the city, even winning an International Design Excellence Award that same year.
Furthermore, providing free Wi-Fi to passengers allows them to be productive while commuting, something that is not possible while driving. Wi-Fi also presents an incredible opportunity for sponsored content and accessible customer data, which could allow brands to target passengers with tailored campaigns based on their routes and habits.
The adoption of TV screens inside buses and bus stops could be used to broadcast live news and other content, turning the entire transit experience into a holistic way to market and consume content. Netflix, for example, could premiere trailers or clips of shows on certain bus routes transforming the journey into a much more comfortable and entertaining experience. Lastly, the creation of an app could be a new way to engage with passengers through games, quizzes, in-app focus groups and surveys, whereby riders using the bus could participate in market research in exchange for bus fare discounts.
Brakewood, Candace, Gregory S. Macfarlane and Kari Watkins (2015), Transportation Research Part C, 53, 59-75.
Cain, Alasdair and Jennifer Flynn (2013), Journal of Public Transportation, 16(4), 63-82.
Garrett, Mark and Taylor Brian D (1999), Berkeley Planning Journal, 13, 6-27.
Korea.net (2010), “A Must See Attraction in the Seoul Train Station.”
Poudenx, Pascal (2008), Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 42(6), 901-909.
Trapeze Group (2016), “Case Study: Strætó, Reykjavik.”