It’s one thing to provide a new transit service, and another to get people to use it.
Last year, Austin, Texas launched two express bus routes with a new marketing campaign. Starting in late 2016, the campaign stemmed decreasing ridership, preparing the way for an entirely redesigned bus network in 2018.
The results were unusually good: a 38 percent increase in weekday riders and – surprisingly – an 85 percent increase in weekend riders, according to Austin’s Capital Metro.
MetroRapid (the two express routes) “crosses the heart of Austin,” Cynthia Lucas, Marketing Director at Capital Metro, told me earlier this month. Buses arrive every 10 minutes, and service extends to 2:30 a.m. weekends, making MetroRapid highly dependable without too much planning, fretting, and waiting. Transit lanes in selected areas, along with signal priority, means that buses get a head start with a few seconds of the green light before other vehicles. Multiple door boarding speeds the flow.
Yet premium pricing for this express service hurt ridership when MetroRapid opened in 2014. To fix this, the city lowered fares to $1.25, matching the rest of Austin’s bus system.
This might not have been enough. In addition to lowering fares, Capital Metro launched a marketing campaign with a goal of long-term travel behavior change. Although research on transit marketing nationwide is scant, the Austin campaign shows the value of a smart ad campaign.
A marketing campaign starring ordinary (and kind of weird) people
Capital Metro photographed and crowdsourced pictures of their regular riders. “Our customers were able to relate to the folks that we were showing in ads,” Lucas said. Messaging appeared in three main spaces: buses, online, and radio spots that were recorded in both English and Spanish.
Based upon the meta-slogan “real riders,” the campaign took advantage of local idiosyncrasies. We “kept some Austin weird in it,” said Lucas. An ad featuring an actual bus rider who dressed as Batman “got the most attention,” said Lucas.
The popularity of buses for special events provided a key opening to turn sometimes-riders into frequent riders on the bus – and perhaps explains the huge jump in weekend ridership. “We premised the campaign on that you have to think about this as behavior change, and you know that people will go through phases,” Lucas said.
Bouncing back from hard times
The campaign, along with the changes to the bus, followed some major transit disappointments in Austin. A 2000 referendum to add light rail was defeated by a hair’s breadth, while a 2014 referendum didn’t even come close.
Fortunately, Capital Metro was able to put together a plan to get more out of buses: in June, Austin moved to a grid system with increased frequency and Sunday service. Texas’s hot economy helped with financing. Lucas attributes the plan’s success to the fact that “the economic engine is really cranking in high gear right now.” This has led to, “just terrible traffic and terrible congestion,” but also a bit of money to upgrade the bus.
Austin’s new system continues to see a huge advance in ridership, with a 40 percent increase this July over last year. “Transit is going through a really exciting time right now,” said Lucas, with “new technologies, and new ways of thinking, and new ways of moving people around.”
Photo of a DC Circulator “bus party” (great example of fun marketing!) by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.