A New Year for First Impressions

At the end of October I was taking a trip to New Orleans and while on my plane from Milwaukee, I ended up sitting next to a middle aged couple from a small town in Washington who were heading to The Big Easy for a convention and a chance to see the sites.

I told them it was going to be my first time in New Orleans and how excited I was to see the city. As we continued talking we even discovered all three of us were staying at the same hotel in the French Quarter.

As we got closer to landing they asked if I’d want to share a cab to the hotel. I thanked them for the offer, but told them how I was planning to take the Jefferson Transit bus from the airport into the central business district and then walk six blocks to the hotel.

Their jaws dropped in shock. Even as I explained how I’d rather pay $2 for bus fare instead of $33 for a cab and then get a chance to walk through the city, they looked at me as if they had been socializing with a mad man. They even tried bargaining with me in an effort to try and talk me out of taking public transportation.

Sometime in their life, these people got a terrible impression of transit and it made me curious about how that happened. Did they board a dirty bus once? Encounter a rude driver? Get lost due to a complicated system map? Or are they just intimidated by the public transit?

First impressions are more important than ever for transit agencies when it comes to attracting new riders. Even though I explained how cheap and easy it was to use the bus and showed them how Yelp user had glowing reviews of the JeT bus from Louis Armstrong International Airport, the couple was still appalled at the idea of taking transit.

Many agencies are planning improvements to their systems to make the trips more pleasurable in 2014 and regular customers will enjoy them. Here in Milwaukee I know I’m excited for the new fare cards and bus trackers to start up and for construction of the first leg of the streetcar.

But first impressions don’t just mean new infrastructure. It takes a lot to change choice or non-riders into regular customers. The ushering in of a new year means a chance to change and reassess how agencies are serving their community.

So as we look forward to 2014, maybe it’s a good time for agencies to make a resolution to determine how they’re going to improve first impressions for potential riders to make sure they don’t sour to transit. More riders are better for your bottom line and our communities and the economy.

And it’s better for me because I don’t want to worry about someone reporting me as a suspicious person to the TSA the next time I fly just because I plan to take the bus when I land.