Adam was waiting for his ride-share when he decided to make a TikTok.
“So, something you guys might not know about me is that I don’t drive. I take public transportation everywhere. And I want to show you guys my new favorite form of public transportation.”
As the comments rolled in, people were in disbelief. You’re telling me that a van will pick me up and take me where I need to go for only $1? Seems too good to be true.
Yes, Adam Conover made micro transit go viral.
You might remember him as the creator and star of Adam Ruins Everything, where he “ruined” everything from popular nutrition advice to the automobile industry. He’s a comedian and host, as well as co-creator and star of the new comedy-documentary series The G Word on Netflix.
As a platform, TikTok might seem uniquely suited for Adam’s brand of smart, funny and educational content — but even he was surprised by the reaction to his Metro Micro TikTok. Sample comment:
“Just rode this for the first time home tonight after seeing your video and THANK YOU!!!! Amazing!”
“This turned out to be one of the more popular TikToks I’d ever done. Got over a million views on TikTok, got hundreds of thousands on Twitter. I was really shocked by the response,” he said.
The virality of Metro Micro’s $1 rides even infiltrated real life.
“I do stand up. And for the past couple of weeks, when I go to a show and perform, people come up to me after the show and they’re like, ‘Hey, you were really funny. I saw your TikTok about Metro Micro. That’s incredible!’”
L.A. Metro pilots a a ride-share service that only costs a buck. (Credit: L.A. Metro)
According to L.A. Metro, it appears that 31% of website visits and 41% of its Metro Micro app downloads in April were the result of Adam’s TikTok.
“That’s definitely very impressive,” said Julie Griner, account director for influencer marketing at MikeWorldWide.
She said it’s not surprising that a TikTok Adam filmed on a whim did very well on the platform.
“A lot of the time that happens — which is funny — influencers film random things that tend to take off versus ones where they put a lot of time and effort and money [into it].”
Of course, the people behind Metro Micro were thrilled.
“I was super pumped as the project director, now having done Metro Micro planning and execution for the last five years. It was nice to see that this is actually making a difference,” said Rani Narula-Woods, senior director of special projects.
“The Adam Conover shoutout — it’s a marketer’s dream,” confirmed Diana Ruzova, senior marketing and communications officer at Metro.
I asked Metro if they would be interested in collaborating with Adam.
“100,000%,” said Ruzova.
TikTok and the Positivity Bias
It’s not just riders like Adam who are using TikTok to highlight public transit; agencies are also getting into the game.
Public transportation doesn’t have the best reputation on social media. In a study from 2014, researcher Lisa Schweitzer found that transit agencies received more negative comments and interactions on Twitter than the Kardashians and Southwest Airlines.
TikTok, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have this bias.
“It has an inherent positivity built into it, which is obviously something public transit doesn’t necessarily get in other places,” said Andrew Cassidy, senior director of digital strategy and engagement for the MBTA.
And while some agencies have been hesitant to use TikTok to reach customers, Cassidy says that so far, his agency has done surprisingly well on the platform.
“TikTok was shocking because our first video got almost half a million views…and we’re like, ‘Oh, wow. People really care about this.’”
Jenna Fortunati, a former planner at SEPTA, predicted this moment back in 2019 when she wrote a satirical blog post for Mobility Lab entitled, Can Instagram influencers save public transportation?
Even though the blog was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, Fortunati believes that positive portrayal of public transportation on social media can make a difference.
“I love that it was a positive view of micro transit too because micro transit is really easy to make fun of — because it looks so weird.”
Race and Class on the Bus
The average bus rider in Los Angeles is not Adam Conover.
“They’re very poor and they’re Black, Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander,” said Jessica Meaney, executive director of Investing in Place, a transportation advocacy organization in Los Angeles.
According to numbers from L.A. Metro, median income for a bus rider is only $17,975, with 57% of people riding Metro buses living below the poverty line.
During the pandemic, Metro has reduced bus service and is currently facing an operator shortage, leading to cancellations and delays.
It’s what Adam refers to as a “death spiral.” When the popular perception is that only poor people take the bus, transit agencies don’t invest in improving bus service and service gets worse.
It seems cynical, but getting more people like Adam to take public transportation might shift the cultural stigma.
”We tend to be planning for able-bodied, tall white guys who have disposable income — and honestly, that’s Adam,” said Meaney.
“But if he’s using his platform to raise awareness — and he did, I heard the Metro board talk about [his TikTok] in committee, so they saw it, that’s awesome.”
After his Metro Micro TikTok went viral, Adam made more videos explaining how he lives in L.A. without a car.
He also tells the story of the first time he took the bus in Los Angeles. After a particularly harrowing experience while driving, he pulled up the app on his phone and was surprised to find that there was a bus that went directly from his apartment to his office at the time.
“I think what was so cool about Adam’s video is that he didn’t talk about taking transit as great for the environment and great for equity, great for blah blah blah… He was just like, ‘It makes my life better because driving is so stressful and miserable,’ said Fortunati.
When Adam takes the bus, he likes to post a story on Instagram with the caption “Bus Boy on the bus.”
“What I just like to impress upon people is the reason I am car-free is because it makes me happy,” he said. “It has improved the quality of my life.”
Maylin Tu is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She grew up in Maine and Beijing, is proudly #carfree and might be addicted to her local Buy Nothing group.