Marketing Public Transport is Unlike Marketing Cars

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.

Brand identity

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.


  1. Henry

    At least with retail, it is getting built in US TODs and mixed-use, it’s just not really being occupied, which has at least two causes:

    1. Oversized retail. Seattle has ground floor retail in a lot of, if not most, of “5 over 1” or “6 over 1” that have sprouted up like weeds. A lot of these spaces are vacant, though, and a good deal of that is probably because the retail spaces themselves are too big. It’s nothing like a traditional 20 foot by 50 foot store, but rather spaces big enough to hold a full kitchen, bar, and 100-200 people, and a lot of these spaces see high turnover because a restaurant rarely fills up that full. Pretty much the only thing that works in these massive spaces are chain pharmacies and supermarkets, but you can only have so many of either.

    2. America has a well documented retail glut. The US has 23.5 sq ft of retail per person, compared to 16.8 sq ft per person in Canada, the 2nd place country, and 4.4 sq ft in Japan, the poster child of putting retail next to transit.,and%2011.2%20square%20feet%2C%20respectively. Even the most optimistic retail analysts are basically forecasting a continued retail correction with no end in sight, so the TODs aren’t really filling up.

    The much worse thing is the lack of schools. People move out of downtown and the inner-city because of the lack of seats in good schools. Many New York City schools are over 100%, or 200% design capacity. Despite all the growth happening in Downtown Seattle there are zero schools in the neighborhood. There’s also a lack of daycare, but in general day care services are lacking across the US in general, not just in cities.

    • ericson2314

      I would really like to see more discussion of oversized retail somewhere.

      Wandering through the new apartment towers on the Hudson around 60th or in LIC it finally struck me that the reason everything felt spread out and unwalkable despite the gazillion stories was the huge storefronts or, worse, blank walls (The architects are happy to just wall off the non-enterence areas to avoid more glass or something).

      I’m really worried this problem is going to be hard to fix — given the overall retail restaurant glut, there isn’t enough high-end demand to subdivide, and the lower-capitalized businesses that can only afford the smaller units will just not materialize. (The latter are the elastic demand that goes away.) And without that diversity of needs being served and dynamic micro economy, the benefits of density and transit for the rest of life outside of 9-5 CBD commuting won’t be as well realized.

    • Alon Levy

      Maybe the more recent urban examples have underused retail? I was thinking concretely of Mission Valley in San Diego, which has won national awards for TOD ad which only has parking lot hell for retail.

  2. Martin

    Marketing for transit needs to be more targeted since there are few places in America where transit is significantly faster.

    1) For white collar, point out that while commute is longer, working on the train on a laptop means unproductive time is shorter vs driving.

    2) Restaurant workers, point out daily gas, toll and parking savings. Ignore depreciation which is too complex for an ad.

    3) Mention bike share at stations to appeal to those who want more exercise in their day.

    • Tu


      “1) For white collar, point out that while commute is longer, working on the train on a laptop means unproductive time is shorter vs driving.”

      I agree that this is a good message. Another message that I think proponents of mass transit should push harder is: “You can watch TV, drink beer, and eat pizza, all while going home from work.” Framing things in this way tends to help train skeptics see how great taking the train can be (in my experience).

      • Lee Ratner

        I think the you can relax on the train is a lot better than you can work on the train. To an extent Amtrak does this but this is mainly for ACELA.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, and where the train runs close to a congested road, such as the New Haven Line near I-95, the image of the train moving while the cars are stuck in traffic is a powerful marketing tool. But that boils down to the fact that transit and cars are such different goods: people in the New York suburbs know that if they’re working in Manhattan they’re almost certainly taking a train to work, so the questions are more about increasing the share of jobs that are in Manhattan and improving rail service for other trips.

      • jcranmer

        That does remind me of one idea I had to improve support for true HSR in the US: get a stretch of the NEC that is very clearly visible from I-95 up to 350 km/h standards and run trains at that speed constantly. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a good stretch for that; certainly nothing quite like the way the old Illinois Central line parallels I-57 for miles upon miles.

    • plaws0

      > 3) Mention bike share at stations to appeal to those who want more exercise in their day.

      Even though I haven’t ridden a bike in, probably 20 years (not a good thing, really) I am pro-bicycling and think road infrastructure needs to include bikes.


      Short-term bike rentals don’t seem to me to be a good solution to anything – all systems need fleets of pickup trucks to move the bikes from where the users drop them to where the users want one (counter examples solicited!). Like everything else in the journey-to-work segment, STBR systems are tidal – they don’t magically re-distribute themselves. Figure that out and it would help a lot.

      • Herbert

        There are systems that give incentives or disincentives to put the bike to certain places.

        And of course you reduce the need to drive the bikes around if they can only be returned to fixed stations…

  3. Herbert

    You live in Berlin, wrote about marketing public transit and not once mentioned the highly publicized BVG marketing efforts which have a social media reach well beyond Berlin? Why?

    • Max Wyss

      Maybe, the author makes a difference between “marketing” and “advertising”…

      The Social Media branch of the BVG communication is legendary, however.

    • Alon Levy

      Because these marketing efforts are nothing like private-sector branding. The closest equivalent is that BVG has a vanshare service trying to be a public-sector equivalent of Via and similar services, charging thee usual VBB fare, but I can’t imagine it can ever be profitable, and it’s likely going to end up as a money pit like OuiGo is at the intercity level.

  4. Lee Ratner

    At least in the United States, public transit marketing needs to overcome a lot of negative perceptions about transit. Americans took the car early because it fitted our self-perception of a free-wheeling, free-dealing people that went where we want, how we want, and when we want. Transit isn’t liked by many because of perceived discomfort and being bound by schedules and routes. This needs to overcome and transit needs to be seen as just as freedom giving as cars.

    • ericson2314

      This is common meme about Americans, but because of “those darn coastal cities being so expensive” I believe it’s over emphasized. What’s a real shame is people’s glee about the “gentrifiers moving back out” of San Francisco and Brooklyn” whe they have kids or Covid or whatever. The inability of the US to plan basically means we’re constantly shedding would-be urbanist converts, who then back in the suburbs look back as the city as and elaborate professional class career-building and dating ritual, rather than a superior form of development for all stages of life. (Cities as consumption vs production, again.)

      • Lee Ratner

        Ever since the baby boom, a lot of city dwelling Americans saw cities as places for those out of the mainstream of American society. This meant either non-Whites or weird Bohemian white people. A lot of the latter really resented when more mainstream Americans started moving into the cities and building weird yuppie condos and upscale businesses. This is when we got people like Jeremiah Moss starting to get nostalgic about cities when they were full of grit from the late 1960s to late 1980s/early 1990s and all those businesses disappearing like that dinner. Never mind that you never ate at the dinner because you are a vegetarian and the dinner’s kids decided to become doctors instead of take over the family business.

      • Tiercelet

        By “the inability of the US to plan” I assume you’re including housing development (both promoting density within existing urban transit areas, and developing newer dense developments near to cities–displacing inner-ring suburbs)? Because people excited about gentrifiers moving out are just happy that they get to stay where they are instead–our national allergy to high-quality, dense, affordable housing, even among would-be urbanists, has created an actual (not just perceived) us-vs-them dynamic here.

        I agree cities are a superior form of development–but only if we actually develop them!

    • Lee Ratner

      Japanese private rail companies have extensive commercial, leisure, and real estate businesses that most other rail companies do not have. That makes them a really different thing. They use trains to promote their businesses by having department stores at terminal stations, supermarkets at major ones, and sports teams, etc.

      • anonymouse observer

        Lee Ratner, you are not getting it right. Japanese railways do compete in service itself, not only between different modes (bus vs. conventional rail vs. high-speed rail vs. air) or companies, but also between the same corporation groups. For instance:
        – Tokaido Shinkansen (JR Central HSR) vs. Tokaido Line (JR East conventional rail) between Tokyo, Yokohama, Odawara, and Atami;
        – Hankyu Electric vs. Hanshin Electric between Osaka and Kobe (both subsidiaries of Hankyu-Hanshin Holdings and jointly operate within Kobe Rapid Transit Railway territory and Sanyo Electric territory);
        – Sanyo Shinkansen (JR West HSR) vs. Kagoshima Main Line (JR Kyushu conventional rail) between Kita-Kyushu and Fukuoka.

        There are also cases which two railways sharing infrastructure being in competitions:
        – Tokaido Main Line (JR Central) vs. Meitetsu Nagoya Main Line between Toyohashi, Nagoya, and Gifu (Meitetsu shares track with JR Central Iida Line near Toyohashi and leases the entire station facility from JR Central at Toyohashi);
        – JR West vs. Nankai Electric between KIX Airport and Osaka CBD and between Wakayama and “Minami” District in Osaka (sharing the same track near KIX Airport);
        – Kintetsu vs. JR Central and JR West throughout Kintetsu’s service area (they share station facilities at various locations within Kintetsu’s service area, and Kintetsu relies on JR’s Shinkansen to feed passengers to their service from/to Ise-Shima and Nara regions from other parts of the country);
        – Tobu vs. JR East between Tokyo, northeastern Saitama, and southern Tochigi even though they jointly operate some Limited Express services to Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen area from JR East Shinjuku Station.

        Those railways do differentiate the service from each other, compete in both trip time and price, and market themselves as if they do business in other industry.

        You should look up the rail service map with stopping patterns and service diagrams in Japan very carefully.

        Also, +1 on hear from Alon about their observation/take on competition between railways and buses in Japan in detail!

        • Henry

          I don’t really understand how you managed to read that as if it was in opposition to Lee’s comment, but whatever.

          But yes, the main difference is that Japanese rail companies have maintained massive land holdings which they develop to supplement profits in a virtuous cycle. It isn’t really a model for the US; I don’t really see any sort of feasible future where, say, New York MTA eminent domains billions of dollars of land to redevelop for its own purposes, and even if that did happen they’d probably screw that up too. Atlantic Yards never quite materialized what was promised, neither did WTC (though that is the Port Authority’s fault), and Hudson Yards is a mixed bag being helped along with lots of tax credits, which kind of defeated the purpose of tax-increment financing.

          • borners

            Japan is what other pre-1945 countries should have been and actually were, Japanese private railways originally copied directly from US, French and especially British railway company developments, in everything from “garden cities” (Tokyu’s denentoshi), to sports events and my personal favorite; all-women-musical-theatre and a school to train them (they do AD’s for both on Hankyu’s trains). A lot of milk spilled out for sure, but they can still redevelop the stations and you could probably joint venture/development levy on say hotels next to certain stations. There are profitable private railways without large portfolios that rely on surrounding density, good service and putting bakeries and dentists on top of the station e.g. the shin-keisei in Chiba. You also have the local prefectural government backed railways; Tsukuba Express, Saitama Commuter line and Aichi’s Aonami and Aichi Loop lines, they are profitable sans debt overhangs, but they do station development just the same.

            Also Taiwan and Korea do stations as locations not just travel nodes without much legacy railway systems, but the land law and local government are structured in ways similar Japan (for…reasons). But I don’t know the advertising there. Through I do wonder if Japanese railway income diversification might have a hand in explaining its higher-than-they-need-to-be.

            To further points about Japanese trains advertising. First there are day trips and extra-regional trips. The latter are dominated by JR through the Shinkansen are sort like a cross between a railway diagram and an airplane/travel agency add (JR Central sells Kyoto to Tokyo and Tokyo to Kyoto, JR East sells Tohoku/Hokkaido). That surprises no-one I’m sure given that’s what high-speed rail should do. If such ads work for planes then they probably work for trains especially if they focus on relatively unknown sites of natural/historic beauty or remind people when the various seasonal whatevers happen (Japan is the country 4 seasons blah).

            Japanese urban railways have an advantage that megacity hinterlands are often filled with interesting stuff from Fuji to Fushimi Inari, so you can add lots of off-peak demand potentially. Indeed in a bunch that was the point the Keisei’s line Narita terminus predates the airport because its the largest Buddhist temple in Kanto and Nankai’s second main-line in SE Osaka is named after the giant mountain temple complex Koya-san it leads to. And by gum their want you to go there.

            This is probably not a good model for the relatively young American cities outside the NE. Elsewhere picks your choice. Its interesting that the best performing railway franchise in the UK is the Chiltern one where they compete with Great Western’s speed with reliability, scenery and Bicester outlet mall for the London-Oxford trade, they also upgraded Marylebone station to boot. Its the place where conditions best the circumstances of Japanese private rail.

          • Lee Ratner

            During the late 19th and early 20th century, the private trolley and interurban companies were involved in land development and real estate in the same way that Japanese rail companies are today. Pacific Electric is the most famous example but there were other lesser examples. A lot of the early amusement parks were built by trolley companies so that people would have a reason to ride the trolleys when not at work. This stopped because it went against American political sensibilities during the progressive era and legislation was created to prevent this.

            I think the issue with any American transit agency doing this now is that they are all government operated. The government isn’t generally known for commercial pizzazz in the Anglophone world.

          • Henry

            @borners: the major difference there is that Japanese railways still have significant surface developments that can be built on/over. Compare that to New York MTA, where a good portion of the stations are just under roads and the only entrances are sidewalk easements rather than whole properties in and of themselves.

            It’s probably more possible on the LIRR or Metro-North, but the situation there is odd in that the parking lots are not owned by the transit agency but the town where the station is located, which generally keeps the parking as a perk for residents and is more likely than not run by NIMBYs. Or Amtrak, but they already had a pretty aggressive strategy of selling their big central stations whenever they could, and barely have enough money to run trains less than daily in some cases.

            @Lee: my understanding is that the primary difference between the US and Japan in that respect, is that the trolley companies *sold* the land that they were developing, so it didn’t become an ongoing revenue stream and those early companies folded since they couldn’t replace the trick when it was time to replace everything.

          • Lee Ratner

            @Henry, I’m not sure that the MTA, which also runs Metro North and the LIRR, could develop the land around the MTA and LIRR stations even if they owned the parking lots because of the entire fact it is a government agency. A government agency developing it’s property for commercial uses would be at least unseemly. It might even be illegal under one law or another.

          • Henry

            @Lee: This more or less already happens.

            MTA directly owns Grand Central, and that has retail in it. Fulton Center is also a mall attached to a subway station. MTA operates TurnStyle out of Columbus Circle. And the Port Authority has the World Trade Center.

          • anonymouse observer

            The point I am making is that Japanese railways and public transit operators do marketing solely for service without relating to their auxiliary business or attractions within their service area. They differentiate their service against services operated by other operators by speed, price, frequency, amenities, and/or station location, and sell. Also, they use TV commercials and printed ads on newspapers and magazines.

            Here are some TV commercials showing such marketing, which I think is more private sector style:

            – Tokyo Monorail (a subsidiary of JR East) and Keikyu Electric sells their service between Central Tokyo and Haneda Airport. Tokyo Monorail pushes their superior frequency (once every 4 minutes) and short trip time from Hamamatsu-cho:

            …while Keikyu sells one-seat ride and overall trip time to actual Tokyo CBD (through service from/to Toei Asakusa Line subway):

            …and price (they reduced the surcharge on Haneda Airport extension and lower the fare):

            – With limited access in Central Tokyo, Keisei Electric sells their Skyliner service with significantly shorter trip time from Nippori to Narita Airport against JR East’s Narita Express service, which offers one-seat ride from multiple districts in Central Tokyo but slower:

            – JR West and private railways in Keihanshin metroplex differentiate their service to attract customers. Here is one TV ad by JR West about a service change (pushing increased more frequent Special Rapid Service on Tokaido-Sanyo Line and short trip time between Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe):

            …whereas Hanshin Electric, sells their service using the central location of their Osaka-Umeda terminal (shorter walking/time for transfer from/to subway lines) because they cannot compete against JR West by speed/trip time or frequency:

            – Kintetsu market their Meihan (Nagoya-Osaka) Limited Express service as affordable (nearly a half the price) but more comfortable (all-reserved and wider legroom) than Tokaido Shinkansen because it cannot compete by trip time (less than a hour vs. 2 hours by Kintetsu) or frequency (10+ trains per hour vs. 2 trains per hour on Kintetsu):

            Kintetsu also offers 4-/11-ride discount ticket booklet for Meihan Limited Express to make the affordable fare as stronger selling point (cost per one-way ride on the 11-ride ticket would be almost 75% cheaper than one-way fare of the Shinkansen between Nagoya and Osaka):

            – Meitetsu once marketed their Limited Express service with newer trains and better on-board amenities (all-reserved seats with cab/front viewing seats, on-board pay phone, and cleaner restrooms) than JR Central’s parallel Tokaido Line service because their trip time and fare pricing were nearly the same:

            …with very affordable surcharge (350 yen; now raised to 360 yen):

          • Ryland L

            The Japanese government regulates railway fares, no, so development’s pretty much the only profit stream?

          • Henry

            Sure, but I think the prerequisite for these types of ad campaigns, particularly against another railway, is that there needs to be a parallel railway going to the same major destination.

            You might see this type of ad in intercity travel, particularly in buses where MegaBus/BoltBus and friends do great competition, but I don’t think anything quite like Japanese railway competition exists anywhere in the West, certainly not at an intercity level.

            As far as ad spots go, this is like the closest thing America probably has, but it’s mostly about feeling good and not about any advantage in particular:

            One particular issue is that I can’t imagine most public agencies have an advertising budget, particularly American ones, and ads are not very cheap in the US, particularly in big metropolitan markets that transit would be most competitive in. When most agencies more often than not talk about reducing services below the already minimal level, it’s kind of hard to square that with spending on marketing.

          • Andrew in Ezo

            @Ryland L
            All the “Big 16” Japanese private railway operators make a profit (some more, some less) on their railway operations (positive operating income), exclusive of any other business ventures such as real estate, retail, etc., which are typically separate companies though under the corporate umbrella of the parent company.

            Click to access News1.pdf

          • Lee Ratner

            Henry is right that Japan is unique in having multiple rail options to get to the same destination. Even in the West countries with really great rail coverage, you generally don’t have this. In America, there aren’t multiple rail lines competing for access to New York City on Long Island. You have the LIRR, which is operated by the MTA along with the subway, Metro North, and buses, and that’s it.

          • Ryland L

            @Lee Ratner Actually, due to America’s inability to provide “mass-transit-like” mainline rail, we do seem to have a fair number of subway/rapid transit/light rail lines that parallel mainline commuter rail. E.g.

            – Los Angeles Gold Line Foothill Extension to Azusa serves same market as Metrolink San Bernardino Line. Indeed, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority opposes any further extension of the Gold Line to Ontario because they worry it will take away riders from Metrolink.

            – In New York, the 7 Subway and Long Island Railroad both serve the Flushing-to-Manhattan Market (I stayed in Flushing on my first visit to New York and used both services to get into the city).
            7 Subway:

            LIRR :

            -In the Bay Area, BART and Capitol Corridor closely parallel one another (in some cases within a block or two) Oakland and San Jose:

          • Ryland L

            If regional rail could be done on these mainline corridors, you might get vigorous competition and an opportunity for different agencies to aggressively market their services

          • adirondacker12800

            There is enough demand between Port Washington and Manhattan to need four tracks of railroad.

  5. pfurth

    In the US, branding is considered an essential element of BRT. The logic is that the general perception is that buses are slow and offer poor quality service; here is a subset of routes that is DIFFERENT from your standard bus. It’s easy to understand the motivation, and it’s easy to see that it might work to attract people who wouldn’t be attracted to “just another” bus route. Are you saying there is harm in this kind of branding?

    • Alon Levy

      I am, and there absolutely is harm. The gap in service quality between what is called BRT in the United States and a regular American bus is real but far smaller than that between either kind of bus and rail. For example, SBS in New York has materially raised speeds, by around 40%, but those buses still only average around 14-15 km/h, about half as much as the subway, and have the ride quality of a bus. Moreover, the local vs. SBS split reduces frequency to either kind of service, to the point that in the off-peak, the frequency on the B44 SBS on Nostrand is around the same as on the 2 train, each every 8 minutes pre-corona.

      Moreover, I claim that this separation of branding is part of the problem of listening too much to private-sector marketers who are used to competing with very similar products. The problem of buses in New York (and the rest of the US) is not poor image; it’s poor service. Putting lipstick on the pig doesn’t make it no longer a pig, just as calling a train that averages 90 km/h and comes 5 times a day high-speed rail doesn’t make it convenient for passengers. This leads to worse service planning, because for example it’s considered acceptable to downgrade an area from a subway to a bus, like the Silver Line in Boston because of the BRT-is-as-good-as-rail meme.

  6. Matthew Hutton

    Marketing is super important. And a lot of the good stuff you talk about like simple fares and takts would probably be pushed for by people from a sales/marketing background.

  7. United Stateser

    Getting back to the question of marketing…

    I live in a major city in the US where the bus system is extensive, well-used, runs frequently and is pretty convenient. It is a little slow but the speed is not a big deal-breaker. The problems are late and bunched buses due to city traffic; that the buses (especially when bunched) are very, very crowded during peak hours to the point of being uncomfortable; and aggressive, often intoxicated behavior by questionable individuals who ride with impunity. Before the pandemic, I commuted to work by bus for 7 years. My commute was not very long so I was reasonably happy to walk to the bus stop, wait, squeeze in and ride and put up with the shady behavior.

    When I return to working in-person, I will probably drive, or drive closer to work and then walk from there. What kind of marketing might appeal to me — someone who is predisposed to being open to transit, has extensive experience using transit in his city, owns a car, and just feels like driving now? The marketing can’t mention speed, comfort, or even reliability. Maybe price? Price is really the only “plus” I can think of.

    Personally, I think a Los Angeles “Rapid”-type branding effort is warranted, in my city and in others in the US — flashy big buses that look like trains, speeding down wide streets. I remember being really impressed 15 years or so ago when the “Rapid” network came into being.

  8. Ryland L

    “Public transportation is and remains a Fordist product…” Exception being Tokyo (where if you live, in say, Yokohama, you can choose between Keikyu and JR for travel into Tokyo).

  9. Basil Marte

    “Cash for clunkers” program for real estate:
    “hey, sell that run-down edge-city office building, we’ll give you a subsidy to buy a nice and shiny tower downtown”

    • Eric2

      The problem isn’t existing edge cities, the problem is preventing future greenfield development.

      • Henry Miller

        If those greenfields would be dense they should be fine. If they are dense enough to support HSR transit you get 20 minutes by train downtown, or 45 minutes off peak, over an hour during rush hour.

  10. Phake Nick

    I guess this explain the transit situation in Hong Kong.
    There’s a train company, a few other rail transportation company, a few public bus companies, a few private bus companies, a number of minibus companies, a number of individual minibus operators that do not belongs to companies, an accessible bus company, and it is very common to see them all competing against each other in different ways. In the past everyone was able to make a profit, but as society development stagnate and labor cost rise, this is getting more and more difficult, but there are no plan for intermodal reorganization other than the general idea of let the train(/metro) transport most passengers, and let each individual companies try to improve their finance only within the framework of the amount of service they operate. Hence competition among public transit are essentially everywhere.

  11. Ernest Tufft

    I notice that Boston has underused frequent subway going from Cambridge to Haystack station, while over priced, overly crowded buses, going from Chelsea over the bridge to Hatstack. It seems like immigrant buses are funding the rail transit system. Universities have more pull than ridership data toward routing and stations.

  12. anonymouse observer

    I know these Japanese examples are not common outside of Japan, there are two 30-minute episodes of Japan Railway Journal talking about competitions and private-style marketing done by these in the competitions, one in intercity market (Kintetsu vs. Shinkansen) and the other in urban rail and airport access in Tokyo (JR vs. Keisei and Tokyo Monorail vs. Keikyu):

    Kintetsu Railway’s Hinotori: Challenging the Shinkansen with Comfort

    A Guide to Tokyo’s Airport Access Lines

    In both episodes, the cast/panelist of the show says that competition benefits customers thanks to service improvements done by the operators to win more.

  13. Pingback: Rapid Transit as an Amenity | Pedestrian Observations
  14. Basil Marte

    Simply give the Georgists an aneurysm and say that transportation produces land ∴ sells land ∴ advertises land.

  15. Pingback: What Does It Mean to Run the State Like a Business? | Pedestrian Observations

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