Branding Public Transportation

Branding public transportation

One benefit of a strong brand is that customers will pay more or go out of their way for their preferred brand of product or service. How else do you explain basic items like sunglasses priced at more than $1,000? In marketing the social good, is branding public transportation the answer to getting drivers off of jammed highways and onto public transit?

Public Transit and Brand

Brand is part of the design component of marketing. It’s something that you consciously create and promote. In the end, brand is a promise that resides in the mind of the audience. Your brand is the experience your audience thinks they’ll have if they engage with your organization, buy your product, or use your service.

If brand is a promise, than public transit must be one of the biggest brands among the social goods. What is public transit if not a promise? A promise that if you’re at the bus or train stop on time, you’ll have a ride to where you’re going. You hope that ride is safe, clean, affordable, maybe even pleasant.

If a transit system fails its promise too many times, riders stop showing up.

Many people in the U.S. think public transit is dangerous, dirty, slow, inconvenient, and only for people with no other options.

According to the Pew Center, just 11 percent of U.S. adults use public transit on a regular basis.  Outside the Northeast and urban centers, that percentage quickly drops.

In other words, public transit in the U.S. is losing the brand war to cars. Today, people spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours a year on their preference for personal automobiles over public transportation.

(Just a reminder, the visual identity of an organization, product or service is just part of the brand. Visual elements such as logo, typeface, and color stand in for and remind customers of the experience they’ll have. Don’t be like several of the transit official in this trade article. They seem to think the color of a bus equals the transit agency’s brand.)

Steps to improve the brand of public transportation

Branding public transportation is one area where marketing can make a decided difference in our social lives. If more people preferred public transportation, then ridership would rise, pollution would drop, and roads would be less congested.

Improving brand usually means improving the customer experience. This is especially true for transit. Here are some ways to do it:

Market research: Use data to understand what customers would want in your product or service. When was the last time local government asked your preferences in public transportation, other than at the ballot box? I don’t mean just a public hearing, either. People are stuck in traffic after work, because transit doesn’t work, and can’t make it to city hall the school gym on time for the hearing. What about digital surveys, or phone surveys, or mail-in surveys?

Brand strength survey: Ask your existing customers how strongly they prefer your brand, and why. Yes, your current customers aren’t a random sample. However, surveying your current customers helps you pinpoint strengths and weakness in your brand. You can also identify customers who are super users and evangelists for your product. Activate them to help build your brand awareness.

Technology: It’s 2017–customers expect everything to be digital, personalize, and mobile. Mobile goes double for transit. I should be able to look up routes and fares, store my favorite routes, receive real-time updates, and even pay my fares with my smart phone. Citizens have that convenience in the rest of their life; why should social goods be any different?

Examples of Branding Public Transportation

What does it mean to care about the customer experience of public transit?

One recent example is a Tokyo transit company publicly apologizing after a train left the station 20 seconds early. No one complained or missed their train. Still, the company felt they had not lived up to their brand promise to customers.

Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, worked to deliver a superior transit experience to all citizens. “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars,” says Penalosa, “but rather one where even the rich use public transportation.”

Tourists who visit London often come home with souvenirs from the Underground, like system maps on tote bags and mugs that say “Mind the gap.” London Underground has a strong visual identity that no doubt contributes to citizens’ brand preference. I haven’t visited London (yet), but neither have I heard complaints from residents or tourists about getting around on the Underground.

In the end, branding public transportation comes down to one factor: convenience. For many potential customers, public transportation is far less convenient than a car. Without transit-oriented development, most of our communities are not designed for convenient public transit.


(Image courtesy of Pixabay)

Three Approaches to Neighborhood Design

Neighborhood design has a spectrum of challenges and approaches.

More and more of us live in cities, which essentially means we live in neighborhoods. A neighborhood may seem either something that’s always been or something that happened spontaneously. In reality, there’s a spectrum of approaches to neighborhood design, from the “organic” to the highly planned.

The Spectrum of Neighborhood Design

Neighborhood design is complicated. Multiple infrastructures and systems intersect in a neighborhood: water, sewer, power, roads, transit, housing, small business. Except for brand-new housing developments (which usually don’t feel like a neighborhood), you’re literally building it while you use it.

My spectrum of neighborhood design is defined by the amount of systems thinking employed. Systems thinking helps address the connections, inter-dependencies, changes over time, consequences and other considerations of design challenges. Sometimes, though, you can over-think a neighborhood.

Let’s consider Houston, Seattle, and Staten Island as three points on the spectrum of neighborhood design.

Houston’s Neighborhood Design: Organic Growth

Houston, the fourth-largest city in the US, has no formal zoning code.

Some see this approach to neighborhood design as freedom. Land owners are able develop as they see fit and the market supports. Others see this as uncontrolled and unconsidered, with land owners able to trample the environment and overload supporting infrastructure such as roads and storm sewers.

No formal zoning code means developers aren’t required to engage in systems thinking.

After the flooding from Hurricane Harvey, many commentators in major outlets such as Newsweek and the Wall St. Journal wondered Houston could continue their no-zoning ways.

Still, housing in Houston is affordable compared to other major US cities.

Seattle’s Neighborhood Design: Urban Villages

In the early 1990s, Seattle was starting to feel the growing pains of the swelling tech economy (Microsoft), soaring global aviation (Boeing), increased global trade (Paccar, Port of Seattle), and yes, coffee (Starbucks). Pop culture, from grunge music to the sit-com “Frazier” seemed fixated on the city. Popularity was changing the face of the formerly remote lumber town.

Seattle responded in 1994 by passing a comprehensive plan for urban growth. The plan designates specific neighborhoods as urban centers or urban villages. These neighborhoods would see zoning changes to support higher density housing, mixed-use developments, and public transit hubs.

As the city describes it, the “Comprehensive Plan is the framework for most of Seattle’s big-picture decisions on how to grow while preserving and improving our neighborhoods.”

The framework guides developers in addressing the systems thinking considerations for neighborhoods, but doesn’t fully prescribe solutions to those considerations.

In full disclosure, I’ve lived nearly half my life in the greater Seattle – Puget Sound region. My family’s still there and I visit often. Seattle’s growth under the comprehensive plan has at least seemed orderly. That’s not to say it doesn’t have failures and unforeseen consequences. Despite the plan’s emphasis on transportation, mass transit still lags and traffic jams are starting to rival those in San Francisco. The cost of housing in the urban core is approaching San Francisco levels, as well.

(Incidentally, San Jose now implementing urban villages.)

Staten Island’s Neighborhood Design: Neighborhood in a Box

Neighborhood design in Staten Island and other areas in the greater New York City metro area is growing systems-oriented and more prescriptive.

This CityLab article describes Urby, a 900-unit development described as “an all-encompassing living experience for today’s urbanite.” In other words, a neighborhood in a box.

In creating this approach, developers thought maybe a little too much like marketers. They decided who would live in their creation, and how they would live:

[The developers] built mock-ups in warehouses to study how to make a small space feel bigger, and decide what the primarily Millennial market would and wouldn’t do without. The collaboration resulted in sleek apartments of somewhat Tokyo-esque proportions, making clever use of pocket doors, station-like kitchens and baths, and closets with built-in shelving. Nonessential furniture and decor and extra room to entertain were jettisoned.

Developers even jump-start the neighborhood feeling by planning and providing social activities for area residents.

It’s hard not to mourn the apparently inorganic approach here. You can imagine IKEA signing on as a sponsor.

Pick Your Point on the Spectrum of Neighborhood Design

In the spirit of designing with, not for, a group such as a neighborhood, I have difficulty saying which point on this spectrum is best. Each city and neighborhood needs to find a method and result that works for them.

I will bet that every neighborhood wants high-quality infrastructure, which means the best value in fit, finish, and durability. Personally, I’m skeptical that Houston’s no-code approach produces good quality. The neighborhood-in-a-box approach is new, so I have my doubts about durability. Planned communities don’t have a good track record for longevity.

Where do you land on the spectrum of neighborhood design? Have you seen or experienced an approach that works? Let me know!


(Image courtesy of David McBee / Pexels)



Four Ways to Design Cities That Fight Climate Change

Earth already has a majority urban population. According to urban planner Peter Calthorpe, by 2050 our planet’s urban population will double. That means providing social goods and services to billions more city dwellers. How we accommodate that urban growth will say a lot about who we are and want to be. We can choose to design cities that fight climate change, instead of encouraging it.

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Using Social ROI for Market Entry Decisions

Social ROI


If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are looking for ways to increase your impact. Social return on investment, or social ROI, lets you objectively define and measure your impact. Once you can define and measure impact, use that ability to identify communities to serve. Decisions about who and where you choose to serve–what the private sector calls market entry decisions–have a huge influence on the impact that you have.

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Data-driven Design for Transportation Infrastructure Saves Lives

Roundabouts are one example of data-driven design for transportation infrastructure

According to U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 47 percent of fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. occur in urban areas, resulting in nearly 15,000 deaths per year. That’s more than 40 people dying each day on urban roadways.  If there was a data-driven design for transportation infrastructure that saved lives, shouldn’t we implement it? Data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows traffic roundabouts reduce the number and severity of accidents.

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Building Quality Infrastructure for the Social Good

Building quality infrastructure

Critics of government spending claim that building quality infrastructure for the social good is not affordable. Focus on utility and low cost, they say. No need for grand stone building with imposing facades. Their concerns touch on two core marketing topics, design and pricing.

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Design Better Mass Transit with Systems Thinking

We need ways of designing better transportation systems.

As U.S. cities grow more gridlocked and Millennials adopt mobility services like Uber out of desperation, transit becomes a crucial social good. Without the ability to easily move people and goods, cities become paralyzed. We need a way of designing better transportation systems.

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Want to Change the World? Use Marketing to Change Local Regulations

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.” More stifling, even deadly, words are hard to find. Changing the way we look after the social good can be hard. It pays to start small. You may not sway an entire country, but you can impact your community. It often starts when you change local regulations.

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