Infrastructure Money Tight? Do Better Bus Marketing

Cross posted on on March 6, 2015.

If cities want to reduce the need for expensive infrastructure improvements, they should brand and market their buses better, according to New York Times conservative commentator Josh Barro.

Citing a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, he notes there is evidence to believe that transit agencies could attract more discretionary or choice riders if they “spruce up the buses and tell riders they’re faster than they think.”

This resonates with our experience in Arlington, Virginia, and in other progressive communities around the country.

To be sure, there is no substitute for offering high-quality bus or rail transit service, but many transit agencies skimp when it comes to marketing, outreach, and education and, as a result, the public often has no idea how good the service may actually be. Buses also have an image problem in many communities, which proper marketing could help address. Witness the huge sums spent by automakers in crafting the image of their automobiles.

Our experience in Arlington shows that transit agencies could indeed gain ridership if they did a better job on marketing basics, we call it “Making It Easy,” including:

  • branding buses better,
  • spending time to do good marketing and sales,
  • puting information at the stops, and
  • providing great real-time apps and other information tools.

We should do these relatively inexpensive things first, to maximize the use of the existing system and possibly forestall having to invest large sums in additional infrastructure.

In Arlington, our Commuter Services bureau markets all modes of transportation through a variety of means. Our research shows this marketing causes a substantial lift in transit usage as well as a shift from driving to other modes. In concert with good development planning and transportation services, our efforts provide better mobility without more traffic, at a relatively insubstantial cost as compared to infrastructure.


Barro contends that we should spruce up buses and let consumers know they are faster than you think. This isn’t a bad start.

In Arlington we’ve worked on some other ideas as well.

  • We are developing a technology product called CarFreeAtoZ that will combat the car bias inherent in most current mapping software systems, and produce travel results more akin to real-world conditions across multiple modes.
  • We’ve had success marketing the Metrobus 38B as the “Orange Line with a view,” and our Car-Free Diet marketing platform emphasizes how letting someone else behind the wheel can alleviate stress, among other things.
  • We’ve worked on distinctive, colorful branding on our ART series of buses. (The same technique has been utilized on Washington D.C.’s successful Circulator buses.)
  • And last but not least, we’ve taken deliberate action in improving the customer service provided by bus drivers. Our most recent survey shows that we’re succeeding, not only in terms of customer satisfaction, but, significantly, in terms of the numbers of Millennials using the service.

Yes, we need to think deliberately about the way we market buses in this country. And we can’t skimp on these efforts. If conservative writers like Barro can get on board with this concept, that’s good news.

CarFree map

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