Transit Agencies Cultivate Customer Base to Grow Rail Ridership

Posted on December 23, 2010 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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[IMAGE]MET11Ridership-Minnesota-2.jpg[/IMAGE]A couple of years back, rising fuel prices helped expand public transportation ridership to record levels. However, the balloon soon burst when those fuel prices inched down while unemployment numbers crept up.

"Like a lot of other systems around the country, our ridership had really fallen off when gas prices lowered and unemployment, which is about 12 percent down here, rose," explains Bonnie Arnold, director of marketing for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA). "As a result, our ridership was actually falling off at about the same rate as unemployment."

Adds Bob Gibbons, director of customer services at Metro Transit in Minneapolis/St. Paul: "The unemployment rate here is better than national numbers, but the economy reduced our ridership last year to 76.3 million, compared to 81 million rides the year before."

Despite the dip, the good news is that public transportation ridership is still higher than it was before fuel prices escalated and, in the second quarter of 2010, more than 2.5 billion trips were taken on U.S. public transportation systems as ridership increased by 0.1 percent over the second quarter of 2009, according to a recent American Public Transportation Association (APTA) report.

The uptick in ridership is the first increase in six quarters.

So, how are public transportation systems succeeding in boosting ridership numbers? It seems to run the gamut from marketing to partnering with other organizations to in-depth studies of the services being provided. Whichever method an agency chooses, however, the important factor is knowing who your customers are.

Targeting Sports fans

This year's Major League Baseball season saw the opening of Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins. While at the Twins' old ballpark, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Metro Transit's Hiawatha light rail system carried approximately 12 percent of the fans attending games, even though overall attendance was down, according to Gibbons.

With the new ballpark set to open a mere 12 blocks from the old venue and attendance projected to hit 40,000 people per game, the Twins, City of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Transportation and Metro Transit partnered to help fans find a way to get to Target Field.

"Even though the new park is only 12 blocks away from the Metrodome, it is across town in a place — the Warehouse District — that would have typically have been unfamiliar to most baseball fans," Gibbons explains. "Our partnership led to the creation of a special website called DestinationTargetField.com."

The new website outlined all of the various transportation options to get to the new ballpark, including public transportation, car, bicycle or walking, and became a focal point for the publicity leading up to its opening. The key message, Gibbons says, was to encourage people to use public transportation, especially since both Metro Transit's Hiawatha light rail and Northstar commuter rail lines have stations steps away from the left field foul pole. It turns out to have been a very successful campaign in its initial year.

"The [customer] base is a lot bigger, since the ballpark seats 40,000 and is sold out every game, but the Hiawatha line serves about 5,500 people, or 14 percent of the fans attending the game," Gibbons says. "If you add in commuter rail and a special bus route that we have created from the western suburbs that serves every Twins game, the market share is 20 percent of the people who attend Twins games."

Overall, Gibbons explains that Metro Transit, with its services to not only Twins games but also the National Football League's Minnesota Vikings games, plays a huge role in the Hiawatha and Northstar lines' 13 percent combined growth over the first eight months of 2010.

Focused Advertising

Seattle's Sound Transit is a firm believer in advertising, says Marketing and Creative Services Manager Tim Healy. To help boost ridership on its new light rail system from downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Sound Transit used its advertising know-how to its advantage.

"To get ready for the light rail launch, we developed a campaign called 'Travel Light,'" Healy explains. "It was the first time we ventured into television advertising, rather than just public service announcements, and it was a fun campaign."

The commercials used to help spread the word about the new system featured a woman stuck in traffic who began floating up and out of her vehicle and into a light rail car. Following the system's launch, the campaign message switched to say the system was now open and featured outdoor advertising and extensive print magazine ads, with particular emphasis on inclusion in in-flight magazines. The campaign recently won an APTA Adwheel award.

Healy says that an important part of Sound Transit's advertising is targeting the right demographic. To do so, the agency used the market segmentation services of Nielsen Claritas, a company that provides syndicated surveys and databases on consumer behavior.

"You can actually target down to zip codes because, according to this research method, people of like minds tend to live in certain areas," Healy ­explains.

In general, Sound Transit's ads have targeted the "convertible rider" - people who aren't transit dependent, have more expendable income and are more likely to use transit if you give them a good reason, such as saving money or being more environmentally friendly.

"People who believe in being environmentally friendly can be convinced to use transit because it helps the environment but, in this economy, we are finding that saving money also really plays well," Healy says.

To help play up public transportation's money saving benefits touted by APTA, Sound Transit's 2009 advertising campaign featured messages including "Take This Bus to Hawaii" and "This Bus Pays for College."

Sound Transit's advertising campaigns have been successful in building ridership numbers from 14,000 to 25,000 per day. The "Take this bus to Hawaii" ads even spawned a partnering program with the Oahu Convention and Visitors Bureau, which donated two trips to Hawaii that the agency gave away through a promotion with two local radio stations. The success of that partnership has opened the door for Sound Transit to embark on promotions with other entities, including Hilton Hotels and the YMCA.

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