I’ve written before about how planning public transport differs from planning cars, and how the macroeconomics of producing good public transport differ from that of exporting cars. Another difference between the two modes is marketing. I don’t usually like talking about marketing – I prefer making things to selling them – but it’s relevant, because private-sector marketing is a huge industry, and sometimes marketers end up making decisions about public transportation, and some of those lead to counterproductive planning.
The main difference is that public transportation does not have competition the way private industry does. In many travel markets, for example rush hour travel to city center, it is a monopoly. In others, it isn’t, but it remains fundamentally different from the competition, whereas private-sector marketing generally involves competition between fairly similar products, such as different brands of cars or computers or supermarkets. This also means that trying to turn public transit into a competition between similar providers is overrated: it is bad from the perspective of good planning, but it turns the industry into something private-sector marketers are more familiar with, and is therefore at risk of being adopted (for example, with EU competition mandates) despite being counterproductive.
Companies that make products that are very similar to their competition engage in extensive marketing. Coke vs. Pepsi is the most cliché example, but different brands of cookies, fast food, cars, computers, and smartphones do the same. The differences between these brands are never zero: I can generally tell different brands of bottled water by taste, Samsung- and Sony-made Androids have some differences (let alone iPhones), and so on. But it’s not large either.
Objectively, the cost of switching firms is small, so marketers first of all spend enormous amounts of money on advertising, and second of all aim to create identity markers to impose an emotional cost on customers who switch: “I am a Mac.” If the small differences involve differences in price point, then this can include a marker of class identity; even if they don’t, there’s no shortage of ways to tell people what brand of alcohol or food or video game best fits their microidentity. Establishing brand identity also involves loyalty programs, like airline miles and hotel points: why compete when you can lock passengers into your airline alliance?
This can even bleed into product development to some extent. Microsoft’s embrace, extend, exterminate strategy was designed around getting people to switch to Microsoft products from competitors. This was not a marketing gimmick – the people who developed Excel made sure everything that Lotus 1-2-3 users were used to would also feature in Excel in order to reduce the cost of switching to Microsoft, before using Windows’ power to lock people into Office.
Mass transit is not like this
Public transportation competes with cars as a system. It has a monopoly in certain travel markets, namely rush hour travel to city center, but the existence of those markets itself comes from real estate competition, in which it is necessary to entice companies to choose to locate in city center rather than in a suburban office park. Of note, the following features, all unusual for private-sector competition, apply:
- Competition is for the most part binary: public transportation versus cars. (Bikes complement transit.)
- The public transit side of the competition has economies of scale because of the importance of frequency of arrival, and thus is harmed by any internal competition, whereas the car industry has different automakers and works just fine that way.
- The service has very little customization – everyone rides the same trains. Attempts to introduce product differentiation are harmful because of the frequency effect.
- The product is completely different from the competition – useful at different times of day, in different neighborhoods, for different destinations. Switching incurs costs of similar magnitude to those of migration.
- Much of the competition is not for customers, but for development – city center development is good for public transit, sprawl is good for cars.
- There is competition over public resources, which cannot be divorced from the mode even in an environment of privatization – someone still has to build roads and finance subways.
The consequences of mass transit Fordism
Public transportation is and remains a Fordist product – no product differentiation, highly regimented worker timetables, one-size-fits-all construction, vertical integration. The vertical integration aspects go even farther than early-20th century industry, covering infrastructure, timetables, the equipment, and development. User choice is extensive regarding where to go within the system – I have access to far more variety of products as a consumer and jobs as a worker in Berlin (and had even more in Paris) than I would have driving in a sprawl environment, but I can’t choose what brand of train to use.
This is particularly important when preferences are heterogeneous. Different users have different walking speeds, transfer penalties, idiosyncrasies about access to wifi on board, etc. Planning has to use averages, and for the most part this works without too many seams, but it means that the standard way private businesses use product differentiation doesn’t work.
Of note, this Fordism also exists for the road network, if not for the cars themselves. It’s just far less visible. Drivers may have different preferences that translate to different costs and benefits for a cloverleaf versus a four-level interchange, but engineers can’t have two sets of interchanges, they just build one based on criteria of traffic density. However, the experience of driving on the interchange is not visible as part of the system to the drivers, who occasionally grumble about traffic at a particular intersection but don’t see it as clearly as transit riders see specific transfer stations or modal questions like streetcar vs. subway.
How private-sector marketing can harm transit
Because mass transit is a single system for everyone, standard private-sector marketing schemes involve changes to service that harm the overall system.
Creating brand identification with a specific subgroup of users, such as when some private buses market themselves to tech workers with wifi and USB chargers and charge higher fares, and still can’t make money. Public transportation has to work on an any vehicle, any place, any time principle. Only a handful of hyper-frequent routes can take multiple brands without losing passengers due to the lower frequency of each brand, but on those routes the only reliable way to timetable service is to run on headway management in which case any vehicle can substitute for any vehicle, which means you can’t brand.
This is especially bad when the brands are different modes: bus, bike, streetcar, subway, commuter train. When some modes are marketed to the rich and others are to the poor, capacity is wasted and frequency within each class is lower. Moreover, infrastructure planning is weaker with such differentiation, because often a region or subclass will be close to the wrong mode, forcing expensive additional construction. The United States fails by running commuter rail just for the rich while subways are for the rest, while India fails by doing the exact opposite; both countries build unnecessary infrastructure and underinvest in intermodal integration as a result.
Less harmful but still likely to suck oxygen out of the planning room are various gimmicks, especially at the political level. For example, a program in the mold of cash-for-clunkers to pay people to sell their car and ride public transportation is a waste of money – the main cost of switching from cars to transit or vice versa is that in either case the set of destinations one can easily travel to changes.
Finally, because public transportation is a complex system, trading the need for inter-organization and interdepartmental organization for much lower overall provision costs, people who come into it from consumer product markets may miss some of the required connections. This is especially true of development – people who sell consumer products, including cars, don’t need to think how urban design has to look for their product to succeed. Even people who have heard of transit-oriented development may get it wrong; in the United States, it is common to build some apartment buildings next to a train station but neglect retail and local services, and YIMBY as a movement is at best indifferent to city center office towers.