Marketing the Public Bus: Case Study of LA Metro’s Orange Line

A shift towards public transportation is pivotal in dealing with issues such as traffic congestion and poor air quality. Although, one of the reasons for commuters to not shift to public transit is due to the highly competitive marketplace alongside private automobile companies. Private automobile companies invest billions of dollars every year to (Carrigan, Arpi & Weber, 2011):

  • Maintain their image,
  • Cultivate customer’s mind-set,
  • and, push their products into the market by creating demand

In the year 2009 alone, major automobile companies spent over US$ 21 billion globally on advertisements (Advertising Age Group, 2010). Such intensive marketing from the private sector highlights the need for public bus corporations to engage in cost-effective marketing campaigns to increase their ridership.

Public bus corporations can use various marketing strategies to (EMBARQ India, 2014):

  • Attract new riders
  • Retain existing riders
  • Improve public and political support
  • Educate and inform users about the facilities, and
  • Manage the public narrative through communication

When combined with a good service, branding and marketing encourages people to use the public bus network and thereby reduces the reliance on private vehicles. In this article, the case study of the Orange Line in Los Angeles Metro focuses on their branding, marketing campaigns and user education activities. Few other examples highlight similar aspects of marketing the public transit.

Metro’s Orange Line BRTS in Los Angeles, California

The Orange Line, a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) started its service in 2005 in the San Fernando Valley area, as a part of the Los Angeles Metro. It is 29 kilometres long, has dedicated bus lanes and exclusive right-of-way. Metro (also the name of the operating agency) took many public outreach and engagement initiatives to disseminate the benefits of the public transportation and encouraged the commuters to make a shift. Following are some of the strategies:

  Branding

The brand of the Orange Line is incorporated into the system in numerous ways. The Orange Line is designed to be a part of the Metro’s vast rail network and provides equivalent quality of service. Similarly, it is marketed as part of the Metro and not as a separate entity. This idea is conveyed by keeping the Orange Line brand consistent with the familiar Metro’s colour code instead of typical numbers for bus routes (Figure 1). The colour scheme is carried over and incorporated into multiple components of the service, such as vehicles, bus stations, signs, maps, seating, etc. (Carrigan, Arpi & Weber, 2011).

Figure 1: BRTS as a part of the Los Angeles Metro map (Source: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

 

Figure 2: Brand promotion. (Source: Flynn, Thole, Perk, Samus & Van Nostrand, 2011)

  Marketing Campaigns

During the construction of Orange Line, the management regularly posted construction updates and other information through regional newspapers, the acoustic barriers of their construction site, town hall meetings, fliers, etc. In a pre-launch survey, it was found that people were confused if the Orange line was a bus or a train service. Through “It’s…” promotional campaign, the management answered the questions raised by the people and highlighted the various advantages of the new line (Carrigan, Arpi & Weber, 2011).

Image 3: Metro Orange Line “It’s…” campaign (Source: Flynn, Thole, Perk, Samus & Van Nostrand, 2011)

In 2008, to increase sales tax by half-cent to fund transit projects, the Measure-R bill was up for a public ballot vote. The LA Metro ran the “Opposites” campaign just before the bill to:

  • Dissuade people from using private vehicles
  • Promote the use of the Metro, and
  • Increase awareness about the Metro services

Figure 4: LA Metro’s Opposites Campaign (Source: SEGD)

Comparing the contrasting ideas for public and private transportation, this campaign communicated that Metro was the solution to LA’s problems such as traffic congestion, air pollution and fuel usage (Lejeune, 2013).

The campaign, passed through public approval, helped in securing funding of over $40 billion over 30 years for major transit and highway projects. The discretionary ridership of those who have a car but still use the public transit, also increased from 24% to 36%. Metro’s “unfavorable” ratings dropped from 27 percent to 12 percent and “strongly favorable” ratings increased by 17 percent. Public awareness of the Metro is now at 95 percent (Lejeune, 2013).

  User Education  

User education is an essential aspect of launching and promoting the public transit. Free rides, study tours and safety instructions are some ways to engage the community and acclimatize them to the transit system. During the launch of the Orange Line, the Metro provided free rides on the opening weekend of operations to familiarize the public with the BRTS service and eliminate any uncertainties that existed before. Also, the BRTS vehicles were showcased in 2005 RideFest to promote the use of public transits and congestion management practices. As part of their safety program, Metro made an interactive presentation to about 30,000 residents living nearby and about 100 schools within a 1.5-mile radius of the Orange Line busway (Flynn, Thole, Perk, Samus & Van Nostrand, 2011).

Apart from communicating with the public through press releases, user information systems and marketing campaigns, LA Metro has provisions for bi-lateral communication to hear from the customers. They are very responsive to user feedback systems. The Metro Customer Centre was made more welcoming and cheerful to encourage the use of the facility (Carrigan, Arpi & Weber, 2011).

Other Examples

  Metrobus, Mexico City

In Mexico City, Collectivo drivers often behaved and dressed unprofessionally. The new Metrobus BRTS gave importance to the appearance of its drivers, as they are a reflection of the brand and the image of the whole transit system. Metrobus continues to trains its employees to create a welcoming and passenger-friendly service (Carrigan, Arpi & Weber, 2011).

Image 5: Left: LA Metro Orange Line bus driver as an ambassador

Image 6: Right: Collectivo drivers versus Metrobus drivers in Mexico City

Source: Carrigan, Arpi and Weber, 2011

  Janmarg, Ahmedabad

In Ahmedabad, to acclimatise the public with BRTS, the agency built a prototype of the BRTS station one year before Janmarg became operational. The prototype showcased the station designs and educated people on how to use the facilities. This user education policy also provided an opportunity to gather feedback from the public and make necessary design changes before starting the operations. Janmarg also offered free rides to the public for the first 100 days of operations (Carrigan, Arpi & Weber, 2011).

Conclusion

From the Los Angeles case study, through many interventions LA Metro built a strong brand image. Building up a strong brand image is important to communicate the core values of an organisation, inform the people about the services and encourage them to use it often. Marketing strategies can help transit organizations reach their organizational target of increased public awareness, increased use of services and other specific goals. They can be cost-effectively utilized by the public transit organization. However, marketing campaigns should only promote services that already exist, and the transit corporations must be prepared to handle the generated demand.