New transit chief must persuade public to get back aboard
Miami-Dade’s new transportation chief, Eulois Cleckley, has a golden road to increase mobility without spending a cent on infrastructure. All he has to do is persuade more of us to use the mass transit we already have.
Rather than seeing how many rail lines we can build, his opportunity is to fill increasingly-vacant seats on transit that is now running.
That’s not a construction job, it’s a marketing job. He and his team need to persuade us that transit works. All he has to do is convince us of the truth of that, and make sure it remains true.
New transit riders in Miami don’t just show up. It takes a combination of marketing, salesmanship, innovation and then maintenance of quality of service. That’s not easy, but it’s far less costly and faster than building transit – not that we don’t need more transit lines, but it would be much easier to justify them if the transit we already have wasn’t bleeding riders.
To understand his opportunity, Mr. Cleckley, who just arrived from Denver, should pore over the county’s dismal transit history.
In July, county figures show, the system’s rides gained 21.4% from the peak of the pandemic shutdown in July 2020. But even with that big return of riders, transit use that month was 43% below the July 2017 level.
To factor out the pandemic’s impact, look earlier: from 2013 to 2019, county transit rides fell from 110,702,001 yearly to 79,096,594. That’s more than 36 million lost rides and about 63,200 residents who used to go to work by transit but now don’t – and didn’t even before the pandemic.
Mr. Cleckley faces a challenge: get those 63,200 passengers back aboard. Find the reasons they got off the bus or train and fix them.
One thing certain: riders didn’t flee buses for the joy of rush hour driving on the Palmetto or I-95 or Dixie Highway. Auto commuting here can be dismal, but 63,200 people seem to find it better than county transit.
Even before tackling the long-term transit plunge, Mr. Cleckley has to lure back riders lost since the virus hit. Some still work at home, but many lost in the past year will return to workplaces and decide how to go there. That is not a challenge of running more transit but retrieving lost passengers.
The biggest opportunity is to market what we already have, changing the image of transit for 2.7 million residents.
The Census Bureau revealed last year that while 29.8% of US transit riders earned above $75,000 a year, only 14.6% of Miami-Dade transit riders earned that much. In Miami-Dade, we leave transit to those with the lowest incomes who have no choices – and many people shun sharing transit with the poorest among us.
Of the 1,344,030 in Miami-Dade who work, the census reports that in 2019 only 3.7%, 50,272 of them, got there on public transit. If we could shift just 50,000 people from cars we’d double our transit commuters.
In marketing, the challenge is to show that the product actually works, is reasonably priced, is comfortable and convenient, and is used by “people just like us,” whoever those people may be. If your friends look down on transit, chances are you will too.
It’s that way with buses: many Miamians wouldn’t dream of using them. People who split time between Miami and Manhattan wouldn’t set foot on a bus here but they use Manhattan buses all the time. It’s mostly a matter of image.
Look at our cute little municipal trolleys, used by many of us who wouldn’t dream of stepping onto a county bus. Yet trolleys are just buses with lipstick; they’re attractive and inviting and add tens of thousands of riders who disdain buses.
Dressing up trolleys was not an engineering job but a marketing ploy, and it works very well.
So, how many more marketing ploys are out there, Mr. Cleckley? What if transit featured occasional live entertainment? Or games involving riders? Or clubs? What if the transit system actually advertised how comfortable it is? What if every passenger in one single train car a week got a free trainman’s cap? Or a prize?
Our new transit director, an avid cyclist, sees the advantages of cycling in the city. But we have a very spread-out county. Maybe he can find a way to make the bicycle the transportation mode for the “last mile,” which is the sought-after link from a mass transit system to the home or workplace or both. Could more bicyclists become more mass transit users as well?
Mr. Cleckley, we appeal to you to take creative steps in behavior modification and marketing. Not all will work. But how do we know until we try to get back aboard the train and bus the 63,200 people who left in the four years before the pandemic, plus others who have left since?
New transit is vital. We need more links to more places in the county more conveniently.
But first, think outside the box to move tens of thousands more of us more efficiently using the transit we already have.