The fundamental communications strategies that should be implemented by every transit system are branding and passenger information. These are the most basic, and absolutely critical, strategies for success in your marketing program. They are the essentials that identify your service to the community and provide directions for using it.
Effective branding will enhance a transit system’s image. It can help turn capital investments — buses and facilities — into powerful marketing tools, raising awareness and visibility throughout the community.
Branding is the foundation for your marketing program. It identifies your service and everything associated with it, conveying a unified image to potential customers and helping to create immediate recognition of all aspects of the service. The “look” of vehicles, bus stop signage, shelters, and benches is essentially the transit system’s packaging; vehicles and facilities are its most visible marketing tools.
The principal elements of a transit system’s brand are:
- Vehicle colors and graphics
- Bus stop signage and facilities
Name and logo are the basics of branding. For maximum effect, these must be used consistently on vehicles, bus stop signs and facilities, and be carried through in all promotional materials. It follows that consistency is important for vehicle colors and graphics, as well.
A system name should be short and easy both to say and to remember. It also should communicate the nature of the service and the service area. A few things to keep in mind when selecting a name for your transit service:
- Acronyms are short and easy to use, but not generally very friendly or descriptive unless they actually spell a relevant word.
- Very long names are difficult to use and generally end up getting shortened to acronyms (hence Helena Area Transportation System becomes HATS, which has little to do with transportation).
- If your service is general public transit, be sure that the name conveys this fact.
The demand response transit services in Douglas County, Oregon, evolved from being Douglas County Special Transportation, to Douglas Rides. The name is easier to use and avoids limiting the perception of who can use the services, which are open to the general public.
A logo is a graphic representation of the name. It is used on everything associated with the transit system — vehicles, signage, printed materials, the website, and driver uniforms — using the same pallet of colors for every application. A good transit logo:
- Is attractive, clear, simple and immediately identifiable
- Reinforces the system’s name, service or service area
- Can be used easily in a variety of applications and sizes
- Can be used in both horizontal (a bus) and vertical (a sign or brochure) applications
- Can be used in black and white
Vehicle graphics can turn a simple bus into a rolling billboard to market your service. Not to be confused with exterior transit advertising, such as bus wraps, which are sold to generate revenue, branding vehicles involves using them to build visibility for your own service and communicate clearly that this is public transit.
For optimum effectiveness, vehicle graphics should include:
- A distinctive base color used consistently for all vehicles. This becomes the “color of transit” in your community. (It is important to note that white cutaway vehicles are often confused with social service vehicles and are not perceived as public transit.)
- Graphics that include the logo, phone number, and website address.
Before and After: The two photos above illustrate the difference in image and visibility created by using a vehicle base color other than white and applying bolder graphics to the exterior of the bus.
Bus stop signage
Bus stop signage is another key element of branding, an important passenger information tool, and a marketing strategy that provides value every day:
- It lets passengers know where they can catch the bus
- It creates system visibility throughout the community
Because it advertises the availability of transit service within a given area or to a specific destination, information at the bus stop is particularly important for building ridership among transient populations such as visitors and college students, and for encouraging first-time use by new riders.
Bus stop signage should be implemented along all fixed routes, identifying each stop with a permanent sign that includes, at minimum:
Bus stops also are a place to provide additional information about routes and schedules. This is addressed further in the Passenger Information at the Bus Stop section.
Bus stop facilities
Shelters and benches at major bus stops increase the visibility of the stops. These amenities are as much a part of the system’s brand as the buses themselves. Their style, color, and quality should be consistent with the overall image you are trying to create.
Along with branding, passenger information tools are the basis of any transit marketing program; they are the directions for using public transportation. Effective, easy-to-use passenger information is essential for making public transit services accessible and useful to the community.
Passenger information tools, like the services themselves, should be designed with the potential riders’ needs in mind. They should be clear, attractive, and intuitive, so the rider does not have to “figure out” how the system works.
Driving is mindless, but transit requires thinking. The familiarity of driving and the ease of getting driving directions make the automobile tough competition for transit, which requires a little more thought and planning. Good passenger information makes riding easier, especially for a first-timer.
Key passenger information tools include:
- Printed Guide
- Google Transit (and/or similar trip planning applications)
- At-the-Stop Information
- Telephone Support
- Real-Time Information
Each of these will be used by different segments of your ridership. Many riders rely on multiple sources of information, depending on the situation.
Whatever type of service you operate — fixed route, demand response, or a combination — a printed brochure, or rider’s guide, will be one of your most basic and important information tools. A rider’s guide for a fixed route service should include:
- A route map or maps showing all routes with bus stop locations, landmarks, and key destinations clearly noted
- Schedule information for each route
- How-to-ride information, including fares, fare media (such as tickets and passes, how to identify a bus stop, and any other information specific to your service type (i.e., how to request a deviation, how to apply for paratransit certification)
- Contact information, including a website address and reference to Google Transit trip planning, if that is available
A rider’s guide for a demand response service should include:
- A map showing the area your system serves, with landmarks and key destinations
- Hours of service
- Eligibility requirements — if any
- How to make a reservation
- How-to-ride information, including fares, fare media, connecting services and any other information specific to your service type (i.e., how to request a deviation on a deviated route, cancellation policy, etc.)
If you operate multiple services or routes, you will need to decide whether to provide a single comprehensive passenger guide that includes information about all of your services, or individual guides for each service or route. To make that decision consider these questions:
- Do you want your riders to use your various services in combination — for example, transferring from one route to another or from demand response to fixed route? If yes, then a comprehensive guide will help riders see how the system works as a whole.
- Do your individual services target different market segments or communities, with little crossover in ridership? If yes, then individual guides for each service will be more effective as riders won’t have to wade through irrelevant information to find what they need.
The following are some key things to consider in developing a rider’s guide. These design principles have been incorporated into the templates that are included as part of this toolkit.
- The guide must be clear and easy to understand. If the potential rider thinks the guide is too hard to read, they will think riding the bus is difficult.
- Use font sizes that are easily legible to most people. If your primary target market is seniors, use 12-14 point font size.
- Use color to make maps and schedules easier to read and reference.
- If you have a significant non-English speaking population in your community, either make your guide bilingual or have a version of the guide in the alternate language. Click here for more information on communicating with limited English proficiency (LEP) populations.
- Rider’s guides often can be designed to be used in two ways -— folded as a rack brochure on a bus or in another display, or flat as a poster.
Designing your guide to work both as a brochure and poster will save costs on printing.
Of course, your passenger guide is valuable only if it is in the hands of potential riders. Widely distributed, your passenger guide can build visibility for your system as well as make sure that information is available when someone needs it. To develop a distribution network for your passenger information:
- Begin by identifying high-traffic locations in each community you serve and for each target market of interest. Ask these locations if they would be willing to provide space for transit information in a visible spot.
- Provide the locations with a customized brochure holder such as the one shown here. These are available from a variety of sources, including Beemak Plastics, and can be imprinted with your logo and phone number.
- Establish a contact person at each location who will let you know if the rack is empty. Maintain an inventory of distribution locations and refill brochure holders on a regular schedule.
At the Bus Stop
A significant part of the branding efforts for a system, bus stop signs heighten visibility and provide valuable information for riders and potential riders, including the system name and logo, website address, and telephone number.
Bus stops also are an opportunity to provide route and schedule information at the point when the rider may need it most — when they are ready to take a trip. There are a number of ways in which information can be provided at the bus stop:
- Decals added to a basic bus stop sign can show what routes serve the stop, their destinations, and the days/hours of service. An example of this style of sign is shown here.
- Changeable information panels can be used to easily display schedule information for the route or routes serving a specific stop.
- Display panels affixed to the back of shelters can be used to post system maps, schedules, and other information.
See Other Resources for sources.
Pay attention to the signs you post! Outdated information will not win friends — or riders.
Having information available at the bus stop is particularly important on low-frequency routes. If the bus comes to a stop only a few times a day, or even a few times a week, knowing the precise time is critical for a potential rider.
Once information is provided at the bus stop, it must be updated on a regular basis.
New riders to transit are likely to turn to the Internet for travel information. This is particularly true for some key potential target markets — college students and commuters — but your website can be a valuable resource for virtually any rider or potential rider. It also can be a useful tool for gatekeepers (such as human service agencies) who often are charged with planning trips for their clients. Here are some basic guidelines for developing a customer-focused website.
To be an effective transit marketing tool, a website must take certain design and management principles into account:
- It must be easy to access, with a web address, or URL, that is short and memorable owing to its relationship to the area or the name of the system.
- It should focus on communicating to current and potential passengers, enabling them to understand quickly and easily where the system goes and how to plan a trip to their destination.
- It should be as simple as possible, so the user can see what the site has to offer from a glance at the home page. People are more likely to scan web pages, looking for links to specific information, than to read them. With that in mind, your website, particularly the home page, should use a minimum of text and should have a clear navigation structure.
- It should use responsive design to work on mobile as well as desktop platforms. See an example of responsive design at sagestage.com. The display of the web page will vary depending on the width of the screen on which it is displayed.
- It must be refreshed and updated regularly
The website should include all of the information included in your passenger guide, and possibly more. However, the way information is organized online is somewhat different. You are not limited by physical space, but you are limited by the viewer’s attention span.
Hence, the top of your home page — the area that is seen immediately when someone comes to your website — is the most important space and should be reserved for critical customer-focused information.
Ideally, the website home page should include the following elements:
- Menu/navigation bar providing immediate access to key information: routes/schedules, demand response services, fares, customer service.
- Trip planner based on Google Transit.
- A map that provides an overview of your service area so viewers can see where transit goes. On a website, it is easy to make a map interactive by including hyperlinks from the route line, demand response service areas, or legend to schedules or information about specific services.
- Rider alerts — for weather, holidays, and other important notices.
The primary focus of your website should be your current and potential riders.
The Trinity Transit website shown here is an example of this approach. For additional examples, see MountainTransit.org, ElDoradoTransit.com, MendocinoTransit.org or SageStage.com.
Like the home page, secondary pages are best kept short and with no scrolling necessary.
Key secondary pages (those linked from the primary navigation bar) should provide the following information:
- For fixed route service: Individual route maps, displayed along with the schedules for those routes.
- Demand response: Information about service area, hours, and how to make a reservation.
- ADA complementary paratransit: Clear information about service area, hours, reservations, and eligibility, including a printable ADA application form.
- Fare information and information about fare media and where to buy it.
Schedules displayed in html format are easier to read than PDFs or graphics. The html format also allows the schedules to be accessed by persons with sight impairments, using a screen reader and by search engines. You may wish also to provide a PDF link for easy printing.
There is likely a great deal of other information that your agency will need to include on the website. Some of this will be rider-focused; other material will be administrative information. This less-critical information can be provided via links from lower on the home page. The top of the page should be reserved for the most important information — that which helps riders plan a trip.
- Rider-focused information:
- Contact form or information for comments, questions, or complaints
- Holiday calendar
- Wheelchair accessibility information
- Bike rack information
- Links to websites for other transportation services, such as intercity bus, social services, and taxis
- Administrative information:
- Title VI Statement and Complaint Form
- Agency policies
- Board meetings and agenda, and any other transit-related community meetings
- Employment notices
- Agency mission statement and history
Planning a trip on transit should be as easy as getting driving directions. But reading maps and schedules is difficult for many people unfamiliar with transit.
Google Transit is a public transportation planning tool that combines the route and schedule data provided by the transit operator with the power of Google Maps. It integrates transit stop, route, schedule, and fare information to allow users to plan transit trips using the same familiar interface they use to get driving directions.
If your system operates fixed route transit services, there are several good reasons to consider becoming part of Google Transit. This tool:
- Provides easy access to transit information on smart phones, tablets, and computers.
- Avoids the difficulty that many potential riders have understanding transit schedules to plan trips, particularly those requiring transfers.
- Provides gatekeepers, such as human service organizations and medical personnel, with an easy way to plan and print trip information for their clients.
- Provides a seamless way of coordinating trips between your transit system and other connecting systems that are also part of Google Transit.
To become part of Google Transit, you must submit your route and schedule information in the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) format. For more information about that process and National RTAP’s GTFS Builder, click here.
Real-time information — how long until the bus gets here — is the ideal for transit users, both fixed route and demand response. This technology was once available only to large systems with significant resources. However, for systems which use AVL (automatic vehicle locator) technology to track vehicles, real-time information tools are now readily available and affordable. Real-time information can be accessed by every rider on a smart phone, tablet, computer, or even via text message or an automated phone system.
For examples of rural systems which are currently providing real-time information, see LakeTransit.org and/or MountainLine.az.gov.
Another option for providing updated information to customers is to allow passengers to sign up to receive alerts via email or text message. Alerts can be issued to let customers know about service changes or disruptions (i.e., service cancellation due to bad weather). The ideal is to allow those requesting alerts to specify which services they want to be informed about — such as a specific route or community.
Service alerts also can be issued using social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
One of the most basic and essential means of communicating passenger information is the telephone. It is particularly important for certain constituencies, including seniors and people with low literacy.
The telephone number for a system should be easy to find. It should be displayed prominently on bus stop signs, on vehicles, on the website, and in all printed materials. It should also be listed in the phonebook, both white and yellow pages.
Options offered on an automated phone answering system should be very clear and should include an option for speaking with a real person.
If your community has a high percentage of non-English speakers, language accommodations by way of a bilingual staff member or a translator service are necessary.