APTA | Passenger Transport
November 9, 2009

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Telling Our Story: Systems Find Ready Audience for Public Transportationís Many Benefits
By JOHN R. BELL, APTA Program Manager-Communications

Editor’s Note: New APTA Chair M.P. Carter has made “Telling Our Story” her signature initiative, encouraging APTA and all its members to tell the story of public transportation’s many benefits in new ways, to even wider audiences. In the coming months, look for these APTA stories in social media settings, new materials, and in the publications you enjoy already.

Our story is one of great importance for lawmakers and the general public. Whether it’s a stronger economy, better environmental sustainability, or greater energy independence, public transportation takes us there.

These efforts will be guided by the new Telling Our Story Task Force, led by co-chairs Tom Costello, assistant managing director of the Champaign-Urbana (IL) Mass Transit District, and Alice Wiggins-Tolbert, director of project development for Parsons Brinckerhoff in Atlanta.

APTA invites all members to tell their stories and help spread the message of the importance of public transportation for a stronger, healthier, more prosperous America.

Public transportation systems around the nation, large and small, are showing that, when it comes to attracting more riders and promoting the benefits of the industry, there’s no substitute for telling our story in a compelling manner—whether through print advertisements, flyers, broadcast media, or an entire media campaign.

In South Carolina, the Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority (CARTA) did just that with its recent “Drive Less, Save More” campaign, which featured radio, billboard, and print advertisements highlighting the savings possible through taking public transit.

“With economic conditions worsening in the first quarter of 2008, we wanted to make sure that our message was right on point and addressed what everyone was most concerned with—saving money,” said Michelle Emerson, marketing coordinator for CARTA.

One example was CARTA’s radio spot, “Stop Fighting the Pump,” in which a boxing announcer delivers a blow-by-blow account of “regular Joe” being pounded by gasoline prices, taking painful hits to the groceries, the vacation, and even his mother’s birthday present. “The strategy was to get drivers on regular commutes to start thinking that there may be an easier and cheaper way to commute—and to have a little bit of fun, too,” said Christine Wilkinson, CARTA transit administrator.

Emerson noted that the campaign increased CARTA’s visibility in the community and also “solidified our image as a professional, well-managed public service agency that provides services that benefit the entire community.” As a result, she said, “ridership during calendar 2008 increased 20 percent, and revenue increased 26 percent. On CARTA’s Express Commuter service, ridership increased 175 percent over 2007.”

Likewise, the Rock Island County Metropolitan Mass Transit District in Moline, IL, got out the word about the green benefits of its bus service, the Illinois Quad Cities MetroLINK, through its “Save Something Green” campaign.

The target audience includes those who “would not typically use transit but may do so if environmentally inspired,” as well as taxpayers who “need to be reminded that transit is an environmentally sound investment in the community,” explained Jennifer Garrity, MetroLINK administrative manager. The campaign thus reminds both groups about the system’s recent investments in buses powered by compressed natural gas and clean-burning diesel, she said.

MetroLINK saw a 22 percent increase in ridership the month it introduced the campaign, Garrity noted adding: “Ridership has continued to increase steadily, anywhere from 10-20 percent each month thereafter.”

Larger transit systems are also telling public transportation’s story to the public. Matthew Raymond, chief communications officer for Los Angeles Metro, explained his agency’s “Problem/Solution” posters: “Gas prices were rising to all-time highs in the late spring of 2008, and the unparalleled ‘pain at the pump’ was shocking even to jaded Los Angeles drivers. Metro needed to capitalize on the situation by capturing the essence of why commuting by transit is a great value.”

Community Transit in Snohomish County, WA, told the story of public transit’s economic benefits with its “Economic Engine” brochure, which highlighted the jobs and funding several new transit projects will bring to the region. “The strategy was to position ourselves as a major contributor to the economic recovery of our region,” explained Bonnie Ginsberg, the agency’s marketing manager.

“Public awareness was greatly increased as a result of this campaign, especially with regard to the major capital projects currently underway,” Ginsberg said, including Snohomish County’s first transit parking garage, construction of another park-and-ride facility, and construction and launch of Swift, the region’s first Bus Rapid Transit system. In addition, “a subsequent random customer survey poll indicated that Community Transit had a top-of-mind awareness with respondents,” she added.

Saving jobs, saving money, saving the environment: When public transit tells its story, it’s always a page turner.

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