Los Angeles’ transit system is inefficient (and no amount of advertising is going to fix it)

Public Transit Needs Improvements, Not Billboards
By Nate Berg

If you’re in Los Angeles, the bus is in your face. It’s on the wall, it’s on the TV, it’s on the pages of magazines and newspapers. The bus is even on the bus. A massive advertising campaign has the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority practically everywhere in L.A. But it’s not on the street where it needs to be the most.

The MTA is spending millions of dollars to advertise itself with what one can only assume to be the goal of getting more people on the bus. This is a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong: Advertising can be evil, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Many important organizations and businesses couldn’t exist without it, and it isn’t completely out of line for the MTA or any transit agency to do a little here and there at the right times. But MTA is spending millions every year to post billboards and posters (mostly inside their own buses) reminding a clearly unaffected L.A. public that its city is home to “America’s Best Transportation System” and inviting them to “Go Metro”; MTA’s Customer Communications budget for the 2008 fiscal year is more than $13.1 million, up from $10.7 million the year before. If we can assume that the MTA’s blatant “Go Metro” slogan is aimed at convincing people to use its transit services, this is a misuse of funds.

That people don’t know about the bus is not what keeps them from riding the bus. They aren’t riding the bus because it takes too long. They aren’t riding the bus because their cars get them where they need to go much more efficiently. They’re not riding the bus because it’s “for poor people”. And mainly, they aren’t riding the bus because the bus is not easy to use. The adventurous and the everyday riders are obviously caveats to this statement, but in the case of the vast majority of mobile L.A. people, the bus is not usable enough to coax them out of their drivers seats. With inconsistently-placed system maps, bus stop route descriptions of fewer than 10 words, and virtually no way of communicating when or if a bus might be coming, L.A.’s public transit system — like the public transit systems of many American cities — is not trying hard enough to be accessible to the outsider or first-timer.

But addressing these issues is not completely out of the question. For example, bus stops in the Chicago Transit Authority system have small maps printed on the sign posts that give riders a clear indication of where the vehicle they’re about to step on is going. And in San Francisco, Muni system riders can check the NexMuni website which uses satellite tracking to show how far away each bus and train is in real-time. This system developed over the course of nearly a decade, and after some capital investments in the neighborhood of $15 million, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency only budgeted $1.3 million for maintenance in fiscal year 2007. Now improvements are being funded that will place electronic displays at bus and rail stops allowing riders to simply walk up to a stop and see where their bus is and when it’s coming.

To its credit, L.A. MTA has released a beta version of its own bus tracking system “NexTrip,” and this is a great step. Slicing away half or even a quarter of L.A. MTA’s communications budget for the next couple years could expand this technology, including it in digital displays on bus stops systemwide. Making improvements such as these will only help people become more familiar with the system and less intimidated by it.

In its quest to attract more riders, MTA needs to cut back on the marketing campaign. It would be a long search to find one person in Los Angeles, or Chicago, or any other big city who did not know that their city had a bus system. Everybody knows there’s a bus. It’s just that most of them don’t want to use it.

Maybe my outlook on the power of advertising is just too bleak, but I don’t think these people are going to be convinced into riding a bus because a billboard tells them to. People would be more likely to use public transit if, by its nature, it did not give people the impression that they need to know some secret code for using the system before they even try. MTA and other transit agencies need to refocus their marketing funds towards system improvements that would actually achieve the goal of increasing ridership by actually making the systems more usable.

As with many civic improvement projects, the costs of these improvements would be high and the benefits achieved in the long-term. But these types of improvements will be much more effective at making the bus accessible to the general public and increasing ridership.

But until the high up people at the transit agency shift their priorities from public relations to public service, the bus is just going to be another piece of L.A.’s traffic that everybody knows about as a concept but does not consider as a realistic option.

Read more from Nate at The Interchange, Planetizen’s daily blog.

Tags: los angeles, mta, public transportation, billboards, nexmuni