Saturday, Nov. 8, 6:15 p.m. The Wheaton, Md., Metrorail stop in greater Washington, D.C. I am meeting a friend at 7, and I’m later than I wanted to be getting to the Metro. It’s not that I don’t have this routine down pat: It takes about 40 minutes in non-rush hour to get to Dupont Circle, and trains run every 15 minutes. Unfortunately, though, I’m a bit off my stride. I forgot to get dollar bills and now have to scrounge through my purse looking for enough loose change. Uh oh. I can tell from the people coming up the escalator that the train is close.
This is hardly the stuff of prime-time drama. Nor is it fodder for an investigative piece on how badly our nation’s infrastructure needs to be upgraded. Still, as I paw through my bag, it occurs to me how nice it would be if the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority took debit cards.
Maybe one day it will. MasterCard is working with five cities around the world right now to implement a program that will allow riders to pay for public transport using a MasterCard PayPass Card. It’s not quite the seamless process of using a debit card, but it’s close enough.
Many more cities are eager to implement something similar, Adam Gluck, vice president of global transit solutions for MasterCard, told CRM Buyer. “Our phones are ringing off the hook about this.”
As for how many prospective deals are in the pipeline, Gluck declined to say — but “it is very healthy. Almost every [request for proposal] we see from a transit authority nowadays has some component of payment card acceptance to it.”
That’s because transit authorities are increasingly targeting riders like me — choice riders who are not dependent on public transportation to get to work or go to the store or bring a child to day care.
“Budgets are being stretched in almost every municipality,” Gluck said. “The only way to counteract that is to lure new riders with user-friendly services and upgrades.”
No matter how stretched transit budgets are becoming, there is clearly a trend for these agencies to invest additional dollars not only to attract new riders, but also to keep the ones they have. The current economic environment might be working in their favor, though. Few consumers are blas enough about their finances to ditch public transportation unless they have no alternative.
Transit authorities are looking toward the long term, though. As difficult as it may be to believe it right now, the economy will recover, and Americans will resume their love affair with the automobile.
Range of Projects
That is why — from large cities to small townships — bus, subway and rail lines are experimenting with pilot projects designed to please riders.
Many center on payment. The most common streamlined payment methods are E-Z pass or Smartcard products that can be purchased online or at a transit stop. Other systems target concerns riders may have about reliabilty. Some areas have guaranteed ride programs, which basically promise riders that if they need to leave work suddenly or need to work very late, they will still be able to get home — even if they need to travel during off hours. Other systems have experimented with extending operations until the early morning hours on weekends.
In many cases, transit authorities have looked to private marketing methodologies to get the word out on new programs or initiatives.
The city of Phoenix, for example, relied heavily on sophisticated word-of-mouth techniques to let people know of its Circulator system — free buses that traverse the same fixed route — after setting it up in certain neighborhoods, Yvette Roeder, a spokesperson with the Phoenix Public Transit Department, told CRM Buyer.
“We spent a lot of time querying people in those neighborhoods about where they use public transportation the most — the grocery store, healthcare clinics, local employers — to develop the route,” Roeder said.
Once those establishments were identified, the transit authority approached them to educate their own clients and employees about the Circulators, she explained. The transit authority also used low-budget but highly memorable marketing gimmicks to get riders themselves to spread the word. During the holiday season, for instance, Frosty the Snowman might ride a particular route for a day, handing out gift certificates for stores on the route.
Sexy Tech Apps
The flashiest endeavors by far, though, entail the use of new technologies to meet riders’ needs. One of the most popular programs in Chicago is its Bus Tracker program.
Essentially, it delivers to riders’ mobile devices or desktops the estimated time of arrival for a particular bus — information that is deeply welcome on bitter winter days.
It began as a pilot program a few years ago and has since been rolled out to 49 percent of the city’s buses, Noelle Gaffney, vice president for public affairs for the Chicago Transit Authority, told CRM Buyer. By spring, the entire fleet will be enabled.
“We have gotten tremendous feedback about this,” Gaffney said. “It addresses the issue that people have regarding the perceived reliability of bus service.” Even if a bus is delayed, the frustration is much less if the riders know how long the wait will be.
The upgrade was an incremental investment, she explained, as the buses already came equipped with Global Positioning System technology for announcements. “We were able to leverage that system; then all we had to do was add the additional software.”
Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority, the public transit system in greater Phoenix, is also using geo-tracking technology, albeit in a unexpected fashion.
The authority has set up a service that lets companies map out where their employees live and then determine how they can best get to work. In some cases, it is a matter of pointing out the appropriate bus routes, said Valley Metro Chief Marketing Officer Mario Diaz. For employees that don’t live close enough to public transit, the service helps companies customize car pools.
The authority is not shy about promoting policies that may curtail ridership if it is not the right option for the firm.
“We try to introduce the option of teleworking when appropriate as well,” Diaz told CRM Buyer. “We have people on our teams who can work with CEOs to show them the benefits to their bottom lines if some of their workforce is able to work from home some days.”