Management & Operations

Extreme makeover?

Posted on December 6, 2006 by Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher

Much thought was given to the color of the buses in Albany, N.Y. According to a newspaper article, a consultant was brought in to help the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) choose a new color scheme for its buses, one that will complement the updated version of the transit system’s logo. This is what is widely known as “branding” and has kept marketing consultants in business for many decades.

In Albany, the buses have been basically white, which is to say “plain vanilla.” Or uninspired. Or not in touch with a modern color palette.

I happen to like the look of white buses. The color, or lack thereof, suggests a shoulder-to-the-grindstone mentality. It says, “I’m here to perform a function and, excuse me, I don’t have time to talk now because I’ve got to get back on the road.”

But I’m one of the few people who likes vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream, so that probably ruins my credibility when discussing the psychological influences of colors or frozen desserts.

A trustworthy blue selected
The powers-that-be in Albany decided that the CDTA’s white buses should be repainted blue, a deep, warm blue that has a tinge of red in it. People find blue to be a trustworthy, reliable and professional color, according to Eileen O’Donnell, the creative director of Bus Design Co., the consultant brought in to rebrand the image of Albany’s buses.

As many of you know, the study of color preference is basically a science, perhaps not as demanding as biophysics or neurology, but certainly as rigorous as, say, feng shui.

What we’re told is that buses with the proper aesthetic design, starting with the color scheme, will bridge a psychological connection with prospective riders, making them more likely to use the service. Real estate agents use the same tactics when trying to sell a home. They advise the owners to bake some chocolate chip cookies before the start of an open house, so prospective buyers will associate the home with something delicious that their mothers would often bake when they were children (occasionally before an open house).

The message that we get from these consultants is that we need to use every psychological hook available to lure passengers, especially new ones, aboard our buses.

As far as it goes, they’re right. Presenting an attractive exterior to the outside world can only help to raise the image of a transportation system and, equally as important, boost ridership.

More than skin deep
Of course, having vehicles with a welcoming color scheme is only half the battle. Probably not even half. More like one-fifth of the battle.

The other four-fifths is providing a service that is efficient, timely, intelligent and friendly. That last quality is often underestimated. It doesn’t matter how inviting your buses look, they won’t retain their welcoming glow if the operator is rude to the customers or they’re late or they don’t run with enough frequency to meet demand. In fact, I’d say that an ugly, on-time bus with a friendly operator is preferable to a gorgeous, late bus with a sullen operator.

Of course, the goal for a transit property is to provide the best of all worlds to its community, while staying within an increasingly tight budget.

And you can never please all of the people all of the time. One of the board members of the CDTA said the new blue color scheme looks too dark. At night, he said, it could even look sinister. Talk about your public relations nightmares. Evil buses prowling the streets of your city. Maybe plain vanilla isn’t so bad after all.

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