Only marketing can bring back county’s lost transit riders
The good news at Miami-Dade Transit is that riders are returning after fleeing in droves during the pandemic. The bad news is that starting June 1 buses and Metrorail that were free in the pandemic will again charge fares.
Will riders keep returning once they have to pay?
As we noted last week, riders in February, the most recent month reported, were still down nearly 38% from the same month pre-pandemic. Even more important, in February 2020, before the pandemic, ridership was down nearly 20% from four years earlier.
The pandemic simply accelerated a long-running transit use drop. Even if we could climb back to pre-pandemic levels, we’d remain in a very deep hole from earlier losses. We’ve gone from nearly 8.3 million riders in February 2016 to half as many, 4.16 million, in February 2021.
Losses of riders escalate virtually every year even while motorists hit gridlock. The pandemic merely dropped the bottom out. Transit riders’ partial return has been a show of confidence in public health, not mass transit.
So while we’re pleased that more people are going out to work, we can’t count the gains as a transit resurgence. A major task for transit operators is to get those who rode transit before the pandemic to come back rather than switch to private cars.
Some 38% of all pre-pandemic transit rides remain in doubt: how many will again commute, and of those commuters how many will voluntarily return to transit just as it restores fares? Fares will deter some, but how many and for how long?
Ultimately responsible for rebuilding transit use is the transit director. That job is vacant, after Alice Bravo resigned four months ago. The county is still hunting for a successor.
In that hunt, the county should look far outside the box. The new director’s most important challenge will not be to add transit. The challenge will be to add riders.
Ms. Bravo was an engineer. The new director’s most important strength should be marketing, getting fannies into seats.
The director must persuade the public that transit is safe, goes where and when users want to go, is affordable, is clean and is healthful. But more important, the director must mount a well-funded, well-constructed and sustained drive to get people to want to ride buses and trains.
Before we want to ride, transit must not only be a positive experience but hold a positive image. Would you want to hop on a county bus? If the answer is no, a lot of marketing is needed.
Now, would you take a trolley – a cute vehicle that’s really just a bus with old-timey fittings – in our communities? You’re probably more likely to say yes than to a bus. That’s just marketing a bus with some added décor.
Would you be still more likely to ride a bus or Metrorail with entertainment aboard – musicians, say, or a magician? Or with a club of friends as opposed to strangers? That’s just marketing too.
Opportunities to capture riders are broad. We’re going to need every one of them, because even though fares will never pay for operations, they can narrow the gap. And the more who ride transit, the less need to add roads.
Unfortunately, for years the county has put all its transit energy into making sure service is running. That’s important, but it only works when riders believe in using that transit. They only believe when transit’s image is right and the public is told clearly and repeatedly about convenient service – in other words, they only ride when transit is marketed.
No matter how good the service, if the public doesn’t view it positively the system will keep on bleeding passengers.
Marketing only works with a good system, but a good system without good marketing will still fail.
Take our baseball stadium: government spent $3 billion to build a better one to lure more fans. Yet over a decade gains were tiny because even with a better venue the public didn’t really want to be there. What was needed was not a bricks-and-mortar upgrade but an upgrade in what was going on inside the ballpark and the marketing of an image that made the public want to be there.
We’re pleased that the transit department is tinkering to make service more convenient and frequent. It’s also positive that some pandemic losses in riders have diminished as people have gone back to out-of-home work.
But if Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and commissioners don’t demand that marketing be in the transit forefront and if they don’t bring aboard a director with a string of marketing victories elsewhere, we’re just bringing someone aboard to ride the long steady transit decline to the end of the line.