Generally I feel that Auckland Transport (and ARTA before them) does a pretty poor job of marketing public transport in Auckland. They’re obviously not helped by key factors such as the vast variety of different bus companies, or the general lack of funding and neglect for the PT system up until recently, but there are clearly ways in which we could do things better. This article on “The Dirt” highlights the need for PT to be marketed better, if it’s to compete effectively against the vast amount of marketing undertaken by car manufacturers:

Worldwide advertising and marketing efforts among the automobile sector as a whole total $21 billion. General Motors alone spent $3.2 billion in one year. All these investments aimed at attracting new customers help increase car sales, but also boost congestion, carbon dioxide emissions, and air pollution, while working against broader public transportation use and more sustainable urban transportation systems. This is especially true in developing countries: Growing middle classes in these countries are increasingly drawn to car ownership. In Brazil, the number of privately-owned vehicles doubled to 2.6 million in 2010, and in India, there’s been a 20-fold increase.

To fight these trends, …public transportation systems must not forget about branding, marketing, and advertising and using smart, creative, cost-efficient campaigns targeted at increasing and maintaining ridership. Transit agencies must focus their efforts on how to “attract new users that currently use private transport, such as cars and motorcycles; retain existing public transport users who might feel compelled to buy a private vehicle; and secure political and financial support from government officials.”

The article is based around an excellent report prepared by EMBARQ, a transportation think tank. It makes some suggestions for how PT can be marketed better:

Transit agencies must focus their efforts on how to “attract new users that currently use private transport, such as cars and motorcycles; retain existing public transport users who might feel compelled to buy a private vehicle; and secure political and financial support from government officials.” EMBARQ’s report covers how to use tactics widely used in the private and non-profit sectors to focus on brand and identity; user education, information systems, and feedback tools, including online engagement; marketing campaigns; public relations; and internal and external communications. While public transport users determine whether to use a system based on its “reliability, frequent service, safety and cleanliness, service hours, and costs and structures,” public transport systems still need to do branding, marketing, and communications to increase and maintain ridership.

On branding, EMBARQ says “to create a successful brand, then, a public transport system should start by defining its core values. Most public transport systems strive for a brand that clearly presents their services as modern, efficient, rapid, reliable, convenient, comfortable and safe.” The report further differentiates between different types of branding issues, from creating a new service to remedying issues with a highly unpopular service to unifying disparate services under one banner. They also advise against using some loaded, unpopular words: “Another way of avoiding the stigma often associated with traditional bus transport is to not use the term ‘bus’ in the new system’s name.”

It is extremely difficult to create an effective brand for public transport in Auckland. This is predominantly because all the buses are painted different colours – according to the company that operates them. It does not have to be this way, even if the buses are privately owned and operated. In London all the buses are red, even though a variety of different companies operate them and I think this is something that should be looked at once we have integrated ticketing up and running, when it no longer matters which company operates your bus. The branding of b.line bus services seemed to work quite well – promoting the service as ‘superior’ to your normal bus route – in terms of frequency, reliability and speed. That’s why it’s so surprising Auckland Transport hasn’t bothered to unroll any further b.line services since Mt Eden and Dominion Road routes went live this time last year.

Perhaps one of the most important elements of marketing a PT system is showing how easy it is to use. Our current bus maps scream “the system is too complicated for you to even consider using unless you’re a poor sucker without a car”. Compare that to the simple network map of Wellington – which helpfully distinguishes between all-day routes and peak-only ones and creates the look of a system that makes sense. Similarly, in Los Angeles there has been a real effort to highlight that the bus rapid transit service is more like a rail service than a typical bus route: It seems like a missed opportunity to not have the Northern Express service combined with the rail system in a “Rapid Transit Network” map – much as what’s shown in LA’s map above.

So, here are my ideas for ways in which Auckland could market its PT better:

  • Simplify the bus route maps so that infrequent services are shown as dotted lines, to distinguish them from ‘core services’.
  • Create a uniform look for all buses and trains in the region, with the only distinction being whether it’s part of the Rapid Transit Network (trains and Northern Busway), Quality Transit Network (b.line and Link bus route) or other services.
  • Put the Northern Busway on the rail map and call it an RTN map.
  • Highlight the speed of various bus/rail options where they are faster than driving (Eastern Line, Northern Busway, Dominion Road etc.) and market that.
  • Use the HOP brand more – could it potentially be a replacement for MAXX?

What other ways could we market PT better in Auckland?

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  1. I think the things you mention are pretty core things but are actually more about improving usability rather than outright marketing (with the exception of the highlighting the speed differences)but all help to make the system more attractive and therfore easier to sell.

    In terms of marketing I think highlight the speed difference on key routes is a pretty big one but it has to be a genuine time saving most of the time and not just on a few days a year, a few other ideas.
    Highlight reliability i.e. with a car it could be 20 minutes or an hour depending on traffic that day, with a bus/train that route might be a guaranteed 30mins (we have a bit of work to do with rail on this one though)
    Highlight the ability to read a book, use a laptop or smartphone etc
    For existing users you could point out how much they are benefiting the country/economy by using this train service at peak times it saves us $X from not having to build more roads.

    In terms of a specific campaign, AT could sponsor the traffic report, they usually start it with a message and they did it when Onehunga opened to remind people to be careful at level crossings (and it of course doubled as a reminder to people that they could catch a train from Onehunga)

    1. I don’t think you can advertise time/reliability of arrival on many of the bus services run in Auckland. A small percentage are faster than a car, most are not (in this calculation it’s important to include the entire user experience from door to destination). On services with few or no bus lanes the reliability is at least as bad as a car, and often worse because a bus has variable passenger loads meaning an uncertain time allowance for stops. Rail, certainly, because it has right of way and does not try and wind its way around your entire suburb.

  2. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having some distinction on buses depending on where they’re going. You can look at a bus, and know what part of the city it will end up in – that does add something to the user experience. I think in Korea they have different colours for different parts of their cities. However, the riot of bus companies is a problem – we’re paying to use their services, not to look at their brands. Auckland’s Yellow Buses had a uniformity (that signalled a poor experience), so it isn’t like the current situation is in any way how things have to be. Definitely creating unified brands which signify service levels is important.

    Incidentally, I caught a bus down Dominion Rd into Queen and back last night. $9. Now that might seem reasonable to people who are used to paying it, but it was a bit of a shock compared to the fares I’ve been used to in Australia using zone based cards. If I have no great intention to drink alcohol, I’ll be driving in again next time.

  3. I’m reminded me of the ‘Take The Train’ ads that TranzMetro in Wellington use which show trains rolling past backed up traffic on the motorway.

  4. There is a huge untapped peak-time market of potential CBD-bound bus users in the suburbs, at the one time of day when the bus is vaguely competetive, and there is peak potential for ‘working on the bus’. So what’s stopping them switching from traffic jam to bus? Mainly that they don’t even know the service exists. Or if they do, they don’t know where to get it from, or when, or how long they’ll have to wait if they miss one.

    Go visit any bus stop west of New Lynn and try and find any information about the service provided. Absolutely nothing! I often think that to use the (not always terrible) commuter bus services from the suburbs you either need to be forced to (no alternative) or a PT geek, or the kind of puzzle-fanatic who enjoys the challenge of wading through the cryptic puzzles known as bus timetables/network maps.

    I’ve seen this cycle so many times when I lived in the UK. A new PT initiative is introduced – maybe a new route – representing a hard-won investment. Buses go round and round and round, but ridership is pathetic. Eventually the driver is just driving himself round in circles and the initiative is dropped, further eroding faith in the value of investing in buses. What happenned? Nobody will ride a new service if you don’t shout about it. AT seem to have the same opinion. Lots of effort at the moment reviewing and tweaking (and hopefully improving) bus routes. But does the potential mode-shifter know? Have they been told? People will use an improved service only if they know about it.

    By the way the recent revamped map of bus routes in west Auckland now seen at Britomart (reloving the background map and going to abstract lines, the transition pioneered by the London Underground) has improved route legibility by precisely ZERO percent. You STILL can’t tell which bus goes down which road in which direction.

  5. This isn’t just about marketing, but I was thinking about why people don’t ride buses, and one reason (often dismissed by those who have no problem with it) is that buses that stop and start and rocket round twisting suburban streets cause motion sickness in a large section of the population. I caught a bus from Mangere to One Tree Hill a few weeks ago with a friend, and was very glad to be out and in the fresh air again after 30 minutes. We both felt sick. Others who have to stand on a crowded bus, or those without great balance (including many disabled and elderly) find it uncomfortable when buses accelerate and brake aggressively through a range of directions.

    RTN designated buses would presumably use bus lanes and with right of way have smoother starting and stopping patterns, and would also travel along arterials. Both of which would improve this neglected part of the user equation. Once people realised that they offer a better standard of ride, they’d use them more often.

  6. It strikes me as odd that a simple Google search for ‘Auckland B-line bus’ reveals no standalone webpage for the service. (Maybe there is one; I just mean it should be easy to find). It should be a doddle to set up even just a simple static B-line page with a striking, well-drawn route diagram and bold, prominent service frequency promises. Real-time bus locations could come later.

    And while we’re at it, as you’ve no doubt pointed out in previous posts, why on earth are they just resting on their laurels with just the B-line? The network must surely cry out for an A-line, C-line, D-line, etc. down the major thoroughfares.

  7. George D, we should also look at why buses are built on truck chassis and to truck performance standards.

    And whether the drivers really understand their paycheck depends on whether they drive well.

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