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Changing the Perception of Public Transportation


chp_busLast summer I read an interesting book by screenwriter/actor Brian Spaeth entitled Prelude to a Super Airplane. One of the many plotlines in Spaeth’s book involves a conflict between the “fast emerging pro-flying car contingent” and the “traditional pro-airplane members of the populace”. It is a battle for the future of aerial transportation – whether national production should focus on many private individual units or on a few massive public transports.

After reading Prelude, I started thinking about the transportation situation in Tampa. Like most of America, a large majority of the residents of Tampa prefer private automobile use over public transportation. Buses, although used, remain a secondary alternative, ridden primarily by those without cars or those looking to save money on gas.

I predict this is going to change in the very near future. I think we will soon see a major shift in transportation culture. A shift that will require change in the perception and utility of public transportation.

One of the most consistent news trends of the last few years has been reporting the dangerous relationship between communication devices and driving. Every few weeks it seems another story is written about an accident involving a phoning, texting, or tweeting victim. According to a recent post, “an estimated 6,000 people were killed and 500,000 were injured due to cell-phone related car accidents” in 2008.

There is no doubt people are having trouble pausing their desire to stay social. With the growth of the communication industry and ease of staying in touch, we are seeing a cultural shift from the importance of travel to the need for continuous communication. We value staying in touch more than we do those short moments in which our concentration is needed for driving.

So far, our society’s initial reaction has been to fight this cultural shift. Mashable, a blog dedicated to technology and social media, recommended “a combination of legislation, social awareness, and technological innovation to create a safe marriage between social media and driving“. CNN also recently reported on a product designed to disable cell phones from calling or texting while vehicles are in motion.

Unfortunately, the genie of communication and increased socialization cannot be put back in the bottle. On the contrary, we need to embrace our need to be social.

This is where public transportation must step up. They must take the lead in embracing this cultural shift. Instead of being seen as secondary, they need to rebrand, remarket, and refocus their message and be perceived as a safe alternative for those who want to stay in touch while they travel.

Here are some ideas how public transportation systems can promote themselves to those who are putting increased value on communications:

1) Engage their sense of adventure and participation – One of the major buzzphrases is the last year on the technology front has been “geolocation – the “the identification of the real-world geographic location of an Internet-connected computer, mobile device, website visitor or other“. Public transportation organizations should encourage riders to plug in and announce where they are. These organizations could promote “Tweet ‘N’ Ride” events, incorporate social applications such as Foursquare, or even do virtual treasure hunts or games of “I Spy“.

2) Increase routes through college and young professional residential areas – In order to encourage usage, buses need to be seen in areas where communication-savvy people live. This means putting routes in the residential areas of people 18 to 35. These routes need to stop by places this demographic frequents, such as campuses, downtown areas, malls, entertainment complexes, and sports stadiums.

3) Ensure routes have good signal – Whenever possible, public transportation organizations should make sure there are few, if any deadzones along the routes. They could also make all bus stops Wi-Fi zones. If possible, these organizations should also put Wi-Fi on the buses.

4) Embrace social media – Although many transportation organizations already have twitter and facebook accounts, these organizations need to better utilize these platforms. Not only should the administration be engaging potential riders, but the buses should as well. However possible, each bus should have access to the tweeter feed and “automatically” tweet its location when it reaches stops along its route. This information could be broadcast not only to individuals through twitter, but also possibly to a small screen installed in each stop.

5) Target parents – In order to encourage teens and other members of the millennial generation that buses are a viable option, public transportation organizations should create advertising campaigns targeted to parents and other decision makers. Parents should be informed that they do not have to discourage their teen from communicating, and that options do exist for teens to travel and stay in touch.

In Prelude to a Super Airplane, the great culture battle between individual and mass aerial transportation culminates in 2012. If public transportation organizations can capitalize on the current growing cultural shift between transportation and communication, we may see the battle on land much sooner.


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