What Can the Industry Do to Shift the Public Perception of Transit?

Austin, TX

Linda S. Watson


Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority

A shift in the public perception of transit has already begun. Rising fuel prices, a growing interest in sustainable living, and the overall increase of transportation costs to our family budgets are leading people to reconsider their mode of transportation. Mass transit is becoming an obvious choice.

However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done and there are three things we can do to improve the image of public transit. The first step starts at the top of the org chart. In addition to transit experience and good managerial skills, transit executives, CEOs in particular, must be involved in the community and develop solid external relationships. Just as agency managers should know the employees who drive the bus or turn the wrench, CEO’s must reach outside the organization to stakeholders and civic leaders. This also includes building community and business partnerships. At Capital Metro, one of our key objectives is to develop relationships with local businesses and major employers. We regularly reach out to these groups not just to increase ridership but to help build our image and credibility.

A prime example of a successful partnership is our local agreement with Austin Community College, known as the Green Pass program, which allows ACC students, faculty and staff to ride Capital Metro at no cost. The program is funded through a sustainability fee in tuition and the college reimburses Capital Metro for bus, rail and MetroAccess trips. In March, there were 107,830 bus and rail trips with the Green Pass, a 290 percent increase in ridership since the program began a little more than a year ago.

Second, transit systems need to restructure and repackage the way we have been providing bus services for decades. We have proven that we can do a good job of capturing the transit dependent market and that is the core of many of our systems. But reaching the next level requires a different approach.

During my time at Lynx in central Florida, we created the PickUpLine designed to connect riders from outlying areas with small circulator vehicles to high-frequency fixed-route service on major corridors. This proved to be valuable; the flex-type service addressed the need to serve low-density communities with high-quality but lower-cost service. The communities love the personalized service but when people see the smaller vehicles they believe the transit system is being more efficient and using tax dollars wisely.

Finally, enhancements in technology should be a priority to everyone in the transit industry. According to a study from Latitude Research and The Next American City, smartphones can play a major role in encouraging people to choose transit over their automobile. In today’s era of readily accessible information, we have an opportunity to utilize technology in developing smart buses stopping at smart stops, driving on smart streets. Implementing high-tech features not only improves the perception of transit service but it also appeals to a younger generation, who will hopefully grow into lifelong transit users.

Capital Metro is piloting a campaign that delivers bus schedule information to a rider’s phone, in various formats. QR codes are at the center of the campaign. When customers scan the code at a bus stop, they get a mobile website with the next several scheduled departures from that stop, as well as a map and a trip planner.

Cookies embedded with a QR code were given to MetroRail riders on the one-year anniversary to educate them on the new information tool.

Capital Metro also partners with a text-messaging service called Dadnab that allows users to text an origin and destination to receive a text back with trip information. Since the launch of the service, we worked with Dadnab to make enhancements. As a result, users can also text the bus stop ID number for a specific stop to receive the next three departures.

Shifting public perception of transit starts at the top and requires a team; everyone has a role in the process. Creating new approaches and generating a “buzz” about what you are doing is fun, builds system morale and changes perceptions.