Monday, September 20, 2010

Marketing buses: vans vs. "BRT"

Recently I've been complaining about the marketing for the Taxi and Limousine Commission's new private van services, but in the past I've complained in general that BRT was being oversold, and later about the overzealous marketing that was being done specifically for the Transit Authority/Transportation Department joint Select Bus Service project.

So you may be out there thinking, "Yeah, Cap'n, what are you, some kind of fucking hypocrite?" Not so fast. There are times when marketing is appropriate and times when it isn't. Select Bus is not one of those times, but the pilot van program is.

With Select Bus, you've got buses that are packed to the gills during rush hour; the exclusive lanes allow them to run more frequently, transporting more passengers with only a few more buses and drivers, and a minimal increase in fuel consumption and pollution. There is such a huge pent-up demand for transit in these areas that any increase in capacity is used up pretty quickly. In these circumstances, everyone knows the value of the bus, so telling them what they already know is a waste of time.

If you were to run private jitneys along any of the proposed Select Bus routes, or any of the high-ridership routes in the city, you wouldn't have to do any marketing. You'd just have to pull up to any rush-hour bus stop that's jammed with waiting passengers, load up and go. As long as the vans get the passengers where they want to go faster than the bus with a reasonable amount of safety, people will figure out the value and act accordingly.

This is not such a situation. These are routes where there is significant competition from other transit routes and from private cars, and where the MTA couldn't make money even with hefty state subsidies. They're also routes that have lain fallow for over two and a half months, since the MTA ended service on June 27.

Assuming that the vans can make a profit at all, they need to get all those customers back and more. They need to get the word out that the service is available and that it provides value.

I am not suggesting that the van operators try the kinds of bait-and-switch operations that bus rapid transit promoters have engaged in. If the service doesn't provide value, customers will figure that out eventually; you might as well treat them with respect.


ant6n said...

You say that the categories in which public transit can be competitive are "availability, value, glamour and amenities". I would add add that how much people are aware of the service is also a way to be competitive. And for transit, information is the best marketing. Branding can also be a powerful tool to make people more aware of the service (although you could call that 'glamour'). The idea is that the New York SBS is not necessarily BS if it is able to attract riders, even if the transportation value might not be up to your standards. And in the same way, the jitneys might be useless not because of the transit value, but because people are not aware and thus not compelled to use the service.

In the end, all transit should try to market itself as much as possible.

sheronwil said...

nice post..

Cap'n Transit said...

Let me rephrase that, Ant6n: the reasons why people choose one mode over another can be categorized as availability, value, glamour and amenities.

Information can be part of value (I know when the next bus is going to leave, so I can plan better with this bus service). But just plain awareness of the existence of a service is not a reason for choosing that service, it's a prerequisite for making a choice.

I'm using the word "glamour" in a specific, technical sense, and no, it does not encompass simple awareness.

No, transit should not always try to market itself as much as possible, because sometimes it's not worth the effort, and sometimes marketing can replace actual improvements in value.

Steve O. said...

I used to take 4 or 5 round trips on the B69 and B71, but I doubt I'll ever try any of these vans. Here's why:

* There's no schedule and the headways are too long.

* The vehicles are smaller and I have less confidence in the skill of the drivers. I'd be afraid to let my kids on these without a car seat.

* They don't take unlimited MetroCards, which I buy every month, so they are an added expense.