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Transit Agencies Need to Invest in Marketing: A Lesson from Los Angeles

Los Angeles’ Metro is doing something that no transit agency in the country has ever done: it’s marketing its products and services as if it were a private company bent on turning a profit. But for Metro marketing isn’t about increasing the bottom line. It’s about reducing traffic, cleaning the air and making people’s commutes in this auto-clogged city a bit less stressful.

Matt Raymond, the Chief Communications Officer for Metro, is the brainchild behind Metro’s marketing push. During a trip out to Los Angeles I had the chance to talk with Mr. Raymond. “The key to putting together the group,” Mr Raymond said, referring to the in-house ad agency known as Creative Services, “was that we wanted to make public transportation cool.”

Making buses appear as an attractive alternative to cars is an ambitious goal for any transit agency, but it’s especially ambitious in a place like Los Angeles where image and the automobile are everything. Yet, traveling around LA it’s hard not to feel the presence of Metro. It’s fleet of colorful buses are ubiquitous on every major city street. And unlike standard city buses, these buses aren’t dreary and dull. They boast vibrant colors like California poppy from a color palette inspired by the city. Metro also has a number of playful ads on billboards encouraging Angelinos to leave their cars at home and take the bus, rail or carpool.
Comic Relief: One of a number of funny ads for transit.

These ads and the re-brand of Metro seem to be paying off. Earlier this year the Creative Services division of Metro was instrumental in the success of Measure R, a 1/2 cent sales tax that is expected to generate 40 billion dollars over the next 30 years for improving transit services in LA. To get the 2/3 vote required, Metro convinced the vast majority of Angelinos, most of whom commute by private car, that they should pay for transit out of their own pockets.

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.

For people involved in advertising and marketing this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The reason why the pharmaceutical industry, for example, spends over 33% of its revenue on marketing is because it works. Otherwise, why would they do it? It’s true for every other industry as well, including the automobile industry which spends roughly $21 billion to convince you and me that we cant live without cars. So why aren’t more transit agencies following LA’s lead and investing in marketing?busimagematters
Image Matters: Chevrolet’s portrayal of a city bus suggests that transit is something to be avoided – it’s full of creeps and weirdos. By contrast, LA Metro’s sleek depiction of the new orange line is intended to attract the sophisticated commuter.

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. It’s also what Clayton Lane, a transport expert for EMBARQ, calls “the virtuous cycle.”

Targeting Trend Setters: For its opposites ad campaign, Metro gave out shirts to trend setters like these baristas from a local cafe. Photo courtesy of Metro.

There’s no doubt that LA still has a long way to go to solve its traffic problems. The first day I arrived here was a Wednesday and at 10:30 PM I got snared in a traffic jam on the 101. As a friend who lives here told me, “Traffic just sort of pops up out of nowhere.” Fortunately, Metro is set on increasing transit ridership by doing a number of big projects like the orange line expansion, the now complete gold line expansion, and perhaps even the ambitious “subway to the sea.” And unlike other cities, LA will likely see a greater than normal increase in ridership thanks to its great marketing.

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  • Militantangeleno

    Rbmichae: This person has been riding the local buses since 1984 (4 years…pttth, n00b!) and they are WAAAAAY better than what they used to be. Back in the day there was graffiti everywhere, cockroaches crawling on the bus walls and the interiors looked way more dreary. The seats back then had more padding, but they were usually slashed. Would you prefer that instead?

    The ride quality of the buses are even better today. Back then, they vibrated constantly and had very poor suspension. They also never told you which stop you are approaching like they do today.If you only knew how much they have improved.

  • donald rainwater

    how many thugs, creeps and weirdos do you think i’ve seen on the new york city subway? i’ve seen the weirdest things imaginable on the train. i’ve seen beautiful things and ugly things. when in any public place, you are going to see, smell and deal with people you don’t like.

    every time i go to la i ride the buses and have to say i’m always pleasantly surprised. la has done a pretty amazing job with what it’s got to deal with.

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  • If transit were run by a private company, there would be way more advertising, and this is a step towards making them less of a drag on the taxpayers. Government would often be expected to focus on the service, rather than advertising, and then be beaten down for not being an efficient provider of the service. Anyone in business will agree with the statements in the article, that it does work. We have the choice of building more and more roads, or getting people into mass transit.

    Jordy Brisbin

    Sutton-Centre Realty

  • California’s biggest city is also the creativity/media/showbiz capitol. Would anyone expect anything less from Los Angeles? Totally cool.

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  • kaths

    outstanding! this shows exactly what happens when a great marketing effort is put into place. The DC area should use this as a model for our Metro system.

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  • To the poster transitory: I completely agree, but look at how far Los Angeles has come so far. And they did this not through some massive existing budget but through convincing voters that public transit was valuable enough to spend half a cent more in tax on it. That this is happening in LA of all cities is what blows my mind. Or actually, maybe it is because the city is so desperate that they are taking such a big step. You are right that an idea like this would be shot down in a New York or a Chicago, but those cities have a lot more to lose than LA does. I summarized this marketing idea over on my blog:

  • Vito

    Great article and video. Metro has built some great stations and the public art is wonderful, but they need to maintain their stations and art. The state of some are pretty shabby now.

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  • Alex Bauman

    Actually this ad campaign is virtually identical to one that Metro Transit in Minneapolis and St Paul, Minnesota, began a couple years ago. They featured a pictured of firefighters in uniform riding a bus, with the tagline “So Easy, You’d Be Surprised Who is Using It” or something like that.

    The free t-shirt idea is very innovative, though.

  • Madhav Pai

    I would like to congratulate you on this wonderful video. Well done.

  • What’s the purpose of “catchy” advertising when you still have a deficient public transit system?

    Catchy advertising – among other marketing efforts and improved service – was one of the key reasons why Measure R passed, which will lead to improved service. The vast majority of voters would be loath to raise taxes to fund an agency with a poor public image. It’s a simple as that.

  • LAMosca

    What’s the purpose of “catchy” advertising when you still have a deficient public transit system?

    Transit is a public service NOT a business, and Metro needs to understand that as much they come up with trendy and creative ads to lure middle-class whites to ride transit, it’s the transit dependent population that they need to really worry about.

    While there have been improvements over the last decade or so, we are nowhere near as efficient as Chicago, NY, etc…I’d rather have them use that money for actual transit planning.

  • Bill

    What point is it to have great services (transit or otherwise) is nobody knows about them. Transit agencies should definately market their services like other businesses. It’s the discrentionary users that ultimately make the difference in any business. LA Metro saw a 14% jump. Conversely – you must have services worthy of advertising. It does not good to advertising transit that isn’t hitting the mark – that is a waste of taxpayer dolalrs. Make it functional and useful – then sell it baby!

  • transitory

    Good luck. The problem here does not lie in investing more bucks in Marketing. The problem lies with all government agencies. Metro’s lucky to have leaders who realize the importance of innovative marketing and advertising, but fact is, most transit agency leaders are bureaucrats and this is reflected in their Marketing or Public Info departments that use the same old style and literature and concepts decades old. You basically had to drag most transit agencies to the Internet and just look at all their websites, dull, boring, static. The information most transit agencies give us is complicated, wordy, confusing. Just pick up a bus book and I dare you to read it front to back. It’s more like a legal contract. “The agency does not take responsibility for lost or stolen items…” blah-blah-blah-blah. Unfortunately, it is usually the money that lures talented, creative advertisers and marketing folks to private companies but also the bureaucracy of government agencies. How many times do you think a Marketing or ad person has suggested a wild, innovative way to market or brand transit and the director, manager, or board goes, well, gee, uh, um, uh, it’s too risky, no other agency is doing that, I’m not sure, it’s too unorthodox, is that really cost effective, let’s create a subcommittee, let’s think about this more. Creative freedom and government agency are virtually mutually exclusive.

  • This is an excellent piece and the video is spot on. This is very hard to do in a government agency such as a transit authority. I know! Kudos to Matt Reynolds and the Metro Creative Services team!

  • This is a fantastic piece and the video is spot on! It is very hard to do this in a government agency such as a transit authority. I know! Kudos to Matt Raymond and the Metro Creative Services team!

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  • Hey Ethan. About this sentence:

    Los Angeles’ Metro is doing something that no transit agency in the country has ever done: it’s marketing its products and services as if it were a private company bent on turning a profit.

    I’d be interested knowing how you surveyed the history of transit marketing to substantiate that astonishing statement. Plenty of transit agencies engage in marketing. Tri-Met in Portland was doing things that are at least its clever when I rode its buses as a teenager 30 years ago.

    Marketing runs on novelty, of course. Dorothy Parker famously said that every new generation thinks it invented sex, and the same, perhaps, is true for marketing. My advice: praise a clever marketing campaign when you see one, but keep one foot on the floor.

  • I definetly agree, locally (DC) the Montgomery County RideOn bus system could use some much needed marketing. This bus system is great and very reliable. They have been doing a great job for years, yet their efforts go very much unnoticed in the region. They barely have a link on the main county website, and it is poorly promoted.

    Trip Planning Tools, is one way in which transit systems can expand their outreach. So many people use trip planning apps and websites on pda’s. I might just write a quick post on trip planning tools as a means of public outreach. Great post Ethan.

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  • This is truly an amazing piece and demonstrates the effectiveness of great design and unified branding. I wish Denver would take a cue from this campaign

  • Jonathan

    Pharma and auto firms spend gazillions on marketing and advertising as barriers to entry, to make it more expensive for other firms to make drugs or cars. It’s cheaper to put a drug ad on television every 12 minutes than to make a more effective drug.

    Transit doesn’t have that problem; they can measurably improve service by buying more buses or building more lines.

    I like the ads, however. Thanks for bringing them to my attention.

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  • Wonderful. Awesome. And spot on.

  • very interesting.
    So interesting that you should look here:



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  • Thanks for the post Ethan. I forwarded it to our entire marketing department. It’s great to see the success stories of other Agencies, and ways that we are all experimenting in making transit “cool”. I’ve thought that for a long time. (:

    Keep up the spreading the good word!

  • ChinchR

    Nice vid Ethan!