Across cityscapes that are increasingly overwhelmed by advertising and product “branding” (think central places like Times Square, Dundas Square, Trafalgar Square, Shibuya), public transit brands are often overlooked as they zoom past windshields and pedestrians, but in the past few years such brands have become a favorite topic of debate for designers, architects, transportation planners, urban managers and civic leaders. Transit branding is a highly specialized sub-sector of the broader trend of place branding in which municipalities (usually medium to large sized cities) employ corporate-style branding methods to highlight desirable or unique traits in efforts to attract new residents, recruit new businesses, capitalize on natural resources, and increase revenue from tourism. The efficacy of place branding is debatable, particularly whether the expenditure of public money matches the return on investment; moreover few objective or reliable metrics exist to validate claims made by proponents of place branding.
The efficacy and return on investment for public transit brands are, in comparison, relatively straightforward to infer by using a number of widely accepted criteria.
The branding successes of multi-million dollar international corporations (such as Apple, Coke, Nike) has led to an ultra-allegiant, nearly cult-like, brand-centered fundamentalism among consumers. This allegiance is at the root of what market researchers commonly refer to as “brand equity.” The power of a well-cultivated brand has not gone unnoticed by government officials and has heavily influenced the manner by which place brands have taken shape. However, there is one critical difference between corporate-type brands and place brands: building brand equity requires a sustained investment, as well as constant attention and grooming. Often cash-strapped municipal governments do not have surplus budget to invest in the development or maintenance required to sustain a place brand. However, perhaps the investment in branding a city need not be as significant as with corporate counterparts. In the contemporary guerilla-branding climate, the branding potential of existing transit networks is often squandered. Because transit networks are integral to the urban fabric, they are often overlooked as a potential canvas for branding a cityscape. Compared to corporate brands, transit brands are far less taxing on the public purse, are typically less aesthetically-oriented, and are not as aggressively marketed. However, transit brands are potent. Examples include the vehicles, stations, signage, and maps of the Boston “T”, the Chicago “El”, Toronto streetcars, San Francisco cablecars, Paris Metro, Santiago yellow buses, New York Subway, Portland streetcar, the Seattle Monorail, and London Roadmaster (double-decker) buses. These transit brands are significantly more identifiable and readily recognizable in person, in advertisements, on television and in film than city-based place branding efforts that range in sophistication, from relatively simple (Miami-Dade, Detroit NeXT) to pragmatic (Cathedral City, Calif.) to more complex and broad-reaching (LondonOne), to abject failures (Anchorage Big Wild Life). In comparison, transit brands deliver a much greater saturation for the investment, or in colloquial terms: they pack a significant “bang for the buck.”
Outside major urban centers, particularly in North America, the overall image of bus transit is pretty sore. Plagued by operating inefficiencies, financial woes, old equipment, and infrequent service, public transit has been a distant (and often desperate) last choice for travel for many.
However, as gas prices continue to rise, and as consumer awareness of the deleterious effects of a car-dependent culture continues to broaden, public transit is receiving renewed attention as an environmentally sound way to move people — not cars — around cities and promote personal health by increasing physical activity.