Marketing in the Transit Environment

Transit marketing is strategic. It requires an understanding of the needs and wants of your current and potential riders and the benefits your service delivers — because transit must fill a need in order for people to use it. Identifying the target groups who have needs your transit service can fill will allow you to tailor your marketing messages to speak to those with realistic ridership potential.

The needs that riders and potential riders have for transit fall into three categories:

  • Ongoing
  • Temporary
  • Discretionary

Riders and potential riders with an ongoing need for public transit service generally have limited travel options. Those with an ongoing need may include workers, students, low-income families, older adults, and persons with disabilities. These are your core target audiences.

Those with a temporary need might be tourists and other visitors; people who normally drive, but their car is out-of-service; those unable to drive due to an injury or suspended license; or those who want to avoid traffic or parking at a particular destination.

People with a discretionary need include commuters who find using transit more convenient and economical than driving to work; people who rely on transit to save money or avoid the need for a second family vehicle; and those who ride to benefit the environment.

Identifying your target markets

In marketing your transit services, it is likely that you will need to communicate with:

  • Current riders
  • Potential riders
  • Non-riders

Current riders

Current riders are the foundation on which greater ridership is built. These are individuals whose needs are already being met by public transit. Effective communication with current riders is vital to retaining them as customers. In addition, understanding the needs of current riders is important to identifying potential riders. Groups with needs and travel patterns similar to your existing ridership are likely potential riders.

Potential riders

Potential riders are the group from which you want to attract new ridership. They have transportation needs that potentially can be met by public transit. Through effective marketing these individuals will become aware of the system, know what it does and how it works, and have a positive image of the system. When they know that transit can meet their transportation needs, they are ready to take their first ride.

To identify realistic potential riders, you must compare your service to the transportation needs of various groups. What groups can your system serve? What benefit do you offer them?

People try a service because it meets their needs. Whose needs can you meet?

Different service types are attractive to different target groups, so the relevant potential riders for your system will vary with the type of service offered. For example:

  • Fixed route service offers a predictability that generally appeals to work and school commuters, as well as most groups without mobility limitations.
  • Demand response service, such as Dial-A-Ride and deviated fixed-route service, generally is suited to those who need the convenience of curb-to-curb service. Some seniors or mothers with small children, for example, may find it difficult to access a bus stop for fixed route service.
  • ADA complementary paratransit, by definition, is limited to persons with disabilities that prevent them from using fixed route service.
  • Specialized services such as express commuter routes or intercity services may appeal only to target groups with specific travel needs.
These testimonial ads highlight two personal benefits of using transit.

Once you have identified potential riders whose needs you can meet, you can target your marketing effort to those specific groups.


Gatekeepers are individuals and organizations that can provide you with access to potential riders groups. They are important marketing partners.

Many people in the community who do not use public transit themselves have a stake in transit service. Not only can a well-run system enhance a community’s image, but it provides benefits to many individuals and organizations that do not use transit. Employers benefit from having a mobile workforce, while schools and colleges may count on transit for student transportation. By providing access to shopping, personal services, medical care, and recreational opportunities, public transit benefits a diversity of businesses and offers a boost to the economy.  We’ve put together some transit statistics you can add to your presentations, brochures, handouts, or advertisements to help demonstrate the many benefits of public transit.

Among the non-rider population are many individuals and organizations that serve as “gatekeepers” for target groups that are likely transit users. These gatekeepers include employers, educational institutions, social services, and other organizations that can provide access to potential transit-user groups, and therefore serve as marketing partners for your transit system. These gatekeepers make up a target market that is key to your research and communication efforts.

Decision makers, those who make decisions about transit funding, make up another important group to consider in your marketing efforts. Elected officials, board members and staff at local jurisdictions must be made aware of your system’s presence and impact on the community.


Crafting the Message

Crafting the message or messages that you want to promote requires knowing why people use your service and why they don’t. These reasons are the benefits and the barriers to ridership.

Benefits of transit

The benefits of using transit include personal benefits and societal benefits. These should form the basis of messages to be conveyed through promotional strategies.

Personal benefits are relevant to riders and potential riders. These are the benefits a person will enjoy if they use transit. All transit systems offer the most basic of the personal benefits – mobility, getting someone to the places they need or want to go. Other relevant appeals can be the convenience and ease of riding, independence, the cost savings of riding versus having a car, and the time for reading or relaxing while using transit.

Societal benefits are the importance of public transit to the community as a whole, including non-riders. Transit provides great economic and social benefits, as it enables people with no other means of transportation to get to work and participate in the community. It also is an environmentally sound alternative to driving a car; using transit consumes fewer resources and can cut down on pollution.

When speaking to a target audience, it is important to include appeals and information that are relevant to them. Targeted messages that talk to specific needs and benefits are more likely to generate action than generic messages.

In the two brochure examples shown here, one transit system found ways to communicate with two distinct target groups, encouraging them to use the same intercity service. The first group is seniors; the second is Marines on leave.

Different appeals and images are appropriate when communicating with different target audiences.

Senior citizens comprise a large segment of the Morongo Basin market, northeast of Palm Springs in Joshua Tree, California. Note that the promotion piece is headlined with a specific call to action: “Take a Day Trip to Palm Springs without the Driving,” followed by a list of things to do once in Palm Springs. With the photo depicting older people and a message tailored to things a visitor from Joshua Tree might want to do, this is a highly targeted piece that encourages this market to think about using the bus.

A second piece created for the same system targets trainees at the Marine Corps base in the area. The headline, “Ready for Some R&R?” implies time off. The weekend schedule to Palm Springs is included, fare details are provided, and a call to action is implied: for weekend relaxation in Palm Springs, get on the bus!

Barriers to Ridership

It is important to understand why people who have other transportation options do not use transit and whether marketing can address these obstacles:

  • The system doesn’t meet their needs
  • There is a knowledge gap
  • There is a perceptual stigma
“The buses are always late. I can’t depend on the system to get me to work on time.”

Service that is inconvenient, time-consuming, operates at limited hours, or is unreliable does not meet rider needs. No amount of marketing can fix this.

“It should be simple to ride, but I really don’t understand how to do it.”

A knowledge gap is an opportunity for education. Well-designed passenger information materials can fill the gaps of not knowing where or when to get on or off the bus, how much it costs to ride, how to pay a fare and how to transfer. Bus stop signs and vehicle graphics that display phone numbers and website addresses make more information readily accessible. These and other promotional strategies can highlight how-to information and emphasize how easy and advantageous it is to ride.

“The bus system is for other people, not for me.”

Correcting a perceptual stigma — that public transit is for only low-income families, the elderly, or persons with disabilities — also can be addressed with marketing communications. Ongoing communications that stress what a system actually does and show the diverse types of people using it are the ultimate answer to dislodging incorrect perceptions.