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TCRP Report 122: Understanding How to Motivate Communities to Support and Ride Public Transportation


Project Goals

Project B-32’s objectives were twofold. The first objective was to identify—through qualita­tive and quantitative research—the perceptions, values, and decision-making processes that lead to behaviors that support public transportation. The second objective was to determine the most effective communications strategy for motivating individuals, specifically those who are neutral or favorable in their attitudes toward public transportation, to act in support of public transportation.

Review of Prior Research and Case Studies

The Relationship Between Transit and Communities

The range of ways in which people can support transit is hypothetically diverse and may or may not specifically include individual ridership. Moreover, transit’s influence helps to shape communities. Thus there is a link between transit on the one hand and economic or commer­cial interests on the other.

  • On the civic front, support can involve voting for funding or transit-supportive politicians, taking public positions at meetings, or writing letters to newspapers. Socially, it can involve positive word-of-mouth about transit issues to friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Support can also be found on the individual level, with personal choices about transit use.
  • Transit’s effect is broad, affecting commutes, property values, and business efficiencies; as a result there are many ways in which people could be considered transit stakeholders. Identi­fying stakeholders for any given project is important when planning research, marketing, and public outreach.

Perceptions of Transit and How the Industry Markets Itself

Although the public sees many advantages to transit, transit is of less concern to the public than other issues. Encouraging people to support and use transit has relied on market segmen­tation, using attitudes, values, demographics, and behaviors.

  • Transit is of less concern to the public in comparison with other issues. Nonetheless, both ad­vantages and disadvantages of transit are readily seen. Although transit is sometimes viewed as being inexpensive, convenient, bringing mobility, and reducing pollution and congestion, it is also sometimes seen as time-consuming, inconvenient, and crowded. Seniors in particular are concerned with safety and security and encounters with teens. Teens in particular express uneasiness and insecurity about being with strangers, who are perceived as exhibiting risky be­haviors (mostly in reference to buses). Anti-transit sentiments also point to questions about the economic value of funding transit, especially given its little use (ridership) and perceived lack of need in non-urban areas. But many widely held negative beliefs about transit are myths, not supported by facts.
  • Although some of the differences in attitudes toward transit are associated with differing attitudes about how well transit delivers its promises, attitudes are also built on peoples’ values. While attitudes are subject to persuasion and changes in perceptions, values are more stable. Values influence peoples’ attitudes toward transit, in that values help set priorities and provide a frame for viewing transit and its alternatives. Safety; economics; emotions about stress, adventure, and locus of control, and status; mobility; and lastly environmental issues were some of the values explored in prior work.
  • Recognizing the complexities with which attitudes and values can interact with demograph­ics and behavior, the transit industry has sometimes used segmentation to guide strategy and achieve its marketing goals. Segmentations have been successfully applied using various statistical approaches. Naturally, as the approaches to the market change, so do the results. Two studies that define transit support differently have led to very different perspectives on the proportion of the population that could be considered transit supporters.
  • National efforts based on consumer research have been launched in both the United States and Canada. There are also examples of local efforts where agencies were able to target a specific segment (students) as the individuals in the segment develop their attitudes toward transit; efforts achieved their marketing goals of enabling ways for students to learn more about their local transit systems and thus consider transit as an alternative for getting around.
  • Challenges remain, however, even though transit use has grown. Automobile ownership has grown to the point where, in the United States, there are now more automobiles than licensed drivers, and transit must co-exist with the car. Sprawl is another challenge, and results in even more automobile dependence. Conversely, opportunities exist with demographic shifts, in particular with seniors and immigrants. But to overcome these challenges and take advantage of these opportunities, transit must restructure how it does business and give more attention to marketing and research practices.

Practices in Other Industries

Practices in other industries can guide transit in promoting transit-supporting behaviors. Efforts to persuade through attitudes and appeals to values have often been successful.

  • Other industries have recognized the relationships between attitudes and behaviors as well as the value of persuasion. Understanding what attitudes need to be changed often depends on the target behavior: changing a person’s general attitude may have little or no effect on a spe­cific behavior when a more specific attitude needs to be changed. In addition some situations require deliberation, in which case, attitudes can shift as new information is gathered.
  • Marketers have sometimes pursued values instead of attitudinal change. Several values-based approaches have been developed, and the fundamental principle involves learning the target audience’s values as they relate to the product category in order to find connections between those values and the product or service being marketed.
  • Social marketing has taken learning from the commercial world and applied marketing tech­niques to behaviors that benefit the public good; in the process it has demonstrated how com­mercial marketing techniques can be translated to noncommercial efforts. Social marketing has also brought additional elements to the equation. Social marketing has recognized the value of secondary communication targets (those who interact with those whose behavioral change is being sought, for example), and that behavioral change may happen only in stages, rather than requiring immediate change in behaviors. Social marketers sometimes consider it important that advertisements have a positive tone and demonstrate concrete behaviors and examples.
  • Commercial marketers have had a long history of successfully applying these tools in combi­nation. Some campaigns incorporated appeals to personal values as a lever. In other cases, a powerful icon or slogan was adopted that resonated so well with a core belief that it achieved measurable success almost immediately. For example, the classic Keep America Beautiful cam­paign selected Iron Eyes Cody, who became known as the “Crying Indian,” to bring the issue of pollution into personal focus. By the end of the campaign, Keep America Beautiful teams had helped to reduce litter by as much as 88% in 300 communities, 38 states, and several coun­tries. Consumer products have also successfully integrated emotions and values into their messages. Starbucks recently faced the challenge of increasing sales for one of its products. In order to turn an already high level of product awareness into product trial, the company created a marketing campaign that established an emotional connection with the product. The result was a 6% increase in product trials.

Primary Research

Familiarity with Transit and Competing Modes

Research participants believed they knew what their local systems offer, yet preferred to travel by personal car.

  • Respondents generally believed they knew all about the public transit system in their areas. Most respondents said they know that transit service is available, what mode options there are, and how far they live from the nearest stop or station. For transit information, about one-half the respondents simply rely on what they already know. Other transit information resources are hardly used; those who seek information tend to use official websites.
  • About two-thirds had experience with public transit at some point in their lives, but recent past week use, a measure of regular use, was noted by only 20%.
  • The personal car was overwhelmingly viewed very favorably as a mode important to the com­munity (73%)—way ahead of public transit (55%) or carpooling (49%). With these lower public transit scores is also the perception that transit’s performance has room for improve­ment; very favorable scores for transit performance both locally and in general were given by less than one-half of the respondents.

Attitudes Toward Transit and How Support Is Shown

Despite preferences for the car, attitudes toward transit among those in the study were essen­tially positive. However, these attitudes have not yet translated into actions that demonstrate significant feelings of support.

  • The advantages of transit are connected to social rather than individual benefits; the two areas where transit is seen to best deliver are connected with helping individuals with disadvantages and the environment. Other areas such as being functional, attracting new residents to a com­munity, being personally economical, or good for evacuation were less noted. When asked directly, helping individuals with disadvantages was the most important reason for support­ing transit.
  • Current support behavior was weak, but not undetectable. Just more than a third of all respon­dents considered themselves very strong supporters of transit, with another third as somewhat strong supporters. However, types of support behavior tended to be limited to conversations and actions among the narrow social circles of everyday life. Although about two-thirds recom­mended transit to someone they know, less than one-third voted for a bill or bond and very few ever attended a public meeting on transit.

The Roles of Attitudes, Values and Ridership in Building Support

Different groups of respondents, each holding different attitudes toward transit and different sets of values, vary in their potential as targets for a support-driven marketing campaign. Current ridership and use of the local system is a significant determinant of support, but a segment called Society Do-Gooders represents particular potential, because they see the need for transit in their communities.

  • Attitudes toward transit were assessed on many specific performance characteristics. At their heart, however, were six basic performance concepts, and they capture the differences in which people see transit when considering all the specific characteristics: 
    – Green, features that benefit the environment;
    – For You, features that benefit the individual;
    – Works, features associated with basic transit services;
    – For the Disadvantaged, features that provide mobility for the transportation-disadvantaged;
    – For the Community, features that improve the quality of life;
    – For Evacuation, features that help people escape from disasters.
    More respondents see transit as performing well on the concepts For the Disadvantaged and Green than on the other concepts. Lower ratings of transit on For You suggest that many individuals see limited personal relevance, despite recognized societal benefits.
  • Respondents were segmented according to how strongly they considered each of the specific characteristics when thinking about supporting transit. Of the four groups which were found, those in the Good For Us: Ecology segment claimed the greatest number of transit-supporting behaviors. This group, representing 29% of the respondents, emphasizes transit’s environ­mental benefits and gives less thought to transit’s effect on the local economy. The segment claiming the least number of support behaviors is the Good For Us: Mobility segment (24%). Although this group recognizes the importance of mobility, they see little personal relevance in transit. The other two segments, Good For Me (21%) and Works (27%) are average in terms of their support behaviors. Personal relevance is an important determinant of support for those in the Good For Me segment, while those in the Works segment base their support on the simple functionality of the system for their everyday needs and those of others.
  • Of the personal deep-rooted values tested in this study, those that reflected general humani­tarian and environmental concerns were most prevalent among respondents.
  • When categorizing individuals by their deep-rooted values, three emerge as representing at least 20% of the respondents. Society Do-Gooders, individuals most socially concerned and person­ally active of all the possible value segments, represent 25% of the respondents. On the opposite end, also representing 25% of the respondents, is the Self-Involved. This group is less likely to see hardships resulting from others’ difficulties getting around or that communities need to help those people. These respondents are also less willing to make compromises to help society and see government spending on transit as a waste. The World And Me segment expresses social con­cerns to those of Society Do-Gooders but members of this segment are unlikely to take action on anything that does not have personal reward or that they have not tried for themselves. The World And Me segment represents 20% of the respondents. The last two segments are Apathetics (representing 17% of respondents), a younger and less educated group most distinguished by their lack of political involvement, and Talkers, Not Walkers (representing 14% of respondents), who claim to be involved with issues that do not affect them directly but who really show little interest in government involvement in community services such as transit.
  • The Path model, a model that determines the effect of all variables on each other and ulti­mately on the “goal” of demonstrating transit support, indicated that, by far, personal involvement with transit is the strongest determinant. This includes current use of transit, and related behavior—those who are willing to seek information to learn more about their com­munity’s transit services, the perception that transit is personally relevant, and the negative opinions of the importance of personal vehicle on a community. Nevertheless, there appear to be indications that both users and non-users can be targeted to be transit supporters, dependent on the deep-rooted values people hold and the perceptions and attitudes they have toward transit. In particular, the profile and attributes identified with the value segment called Society Do-Gooders has an important effect on support behavior. This includes being person­ally involved in social issues; being environmentally concerned; holding a belief in commu­nity and government action; and being demographically upscale. Communication strategies and messages designed specifically to reach this group or to persuade others into more strongly believing and acting like this group would be most successful in generating support.

Additional Information on Specific Groups of Interest

  • Canadians use transit more than Americans do. However, Canadians and Americans have similar attitudes toward transit and competing modes. The differences in their perceptions are few and scattered. They tend to support transit similarly.
  • People in high-density markets, not surprisingly, report using transit more than people in ei­ther medium- or low-density markets, and they are less positively disposed toward driving a personal car to get around. Otherwise, differences in perceptions of transit are rare.
  • Senior citizens have more positive attitudes about the positive effect of transit as a local trans­portation mode, but support transit in fewer ways than others do—mostly due to not encouraging people they know to use transit. However, they are more likely to see transit as making communities more desirable for businesses and residents. At the same time they view transit less favorably for providing mobility and reducing pollution.

Recommended Communication Strategies

As identified earlier, the second objective of the project was to determine the most effective communications strategy for motivating individuals to act in support of public transportation. The results of the Path analysis were examined to identify the factors most strongly associated with support for public transportation.

Key Research Findings Used in Developing Strategies

The Path analysis, in which responses from the transit usage, perception, and values segmen­tation phases, as well as demographics, and assigned degrees of importance to these variables vis-à-vis their effect on support for public transportation were compiled, revealed the following:

  • Current transit use is the greatest behavioral indicator of support.
  • The attribute rating that most closely correlates with support for transit is the perception that transit is “for you.”
  • By contrast, most respondents rated transit high on “helping those who can’t afford a car to get around” and “providing mobility to those who can’t drive, such as seniors, teens and peo­ple with disabilities.”

The above findings make clear that, to gain momentum for transit support, an effective com­munications message must reach beyond current transit users. The values segmentation find­ings provide further direction for this approach:

  • Belonging to the values segment labeled Society Do-Gooders correlates with support for tran­sit. Values associated with this group include
    Community-based beliefs such as: “It’s important for people to be able to improve their lives and the lives of their children”; “Government has a responsibility to improve the commu­nity”; “Communities need to help people become more self-sufficient”; and “I’m willing to make compromises to help society.”
    Public engagement, i.e., “I want a say in where my tax dollars go” and “I get involved in political and social issues that don’t impact me directly.”
    Environmental concerns: “We need to take care of the planet.”
  • Other values segments that exhibited relatively high levels of transit support include
    The World And Me segment: The World And Me segment resembles the Society Do-Gooders in their value system; however, they appear to need a personal connection to an issue in order to support it, as evidenced by an extremely low degree of agreement (1%) with the statement, “I get involved in political and social issues that don’t impact me directly.” For these individuals, the idea that transit is “for others” may negatively affect support.
    Talkers, Not Walkers: The Talkers, Not Walkers, on the other hand, may get involved in an issue that doesn’t affect them directly. Like the Society Do-Gooders, they believe that “com­munities need to help people become more self-sufficient”; however, this group does not quite see how transit can help communities fill this role.
    Combined, the three values segments described above represent 60% of the respondents.

Finally, the research determined that there were no meaningful differences by population density group—high, medium, and low—or nationality—U.S. or Canadian. Therefore, for the purposes of developing a communications strategy to promote support for public transportation, the sample was treated as a unified whole. Any minor demographic and transit use differences in the three density areas could be addressed in the execution.

Targeting the Broadest Possible Audience

In order to generate the greatest support for transit, the message must appeal to the widest potential audience. Based on the research, this would include

  • Current transit users
  • People who agree with the statement, “Transit is for you.”
  • Individuals who fall into the values segments Society Do-Gooders; The World And Me; and Talkers, Not Walkers.

The research does not support directly targeting the Self-Involved or the Apathetics.

Recommended Communications Platform

Attempting to persuade a broader audience, beyond transit users, to support public trans­portation requires a unique message—one that resonates with and reflects the public’s intrinsic value systems. The research team believes this can be done with a message that emphasizes both the direct benefits to the individual (“for you”) and the community/society benefits. The message must move beyond ridership benefits to communicate the real economic and social benefits that affect every individual, whether they ride transit or not.

We therefore recommend taking the next step from the strategy recommended in the 1999 study, TCRP Report 63. The earlier strategy, “Community Benefits Built on Personal Opportu­nity,” emphasizes the choices, access, and freedom/mobility that public transportation provides. Although the intention here seems to be to suggest that public transportation strengthens the entire community by allowing everyone in the community to accomplish what is important to them, the primary message still focuses on the benefits of ridership.

The next step in positioning seeks to drive home the universal importance and personal rele­vance of public transportation by elevating it to the status of a critical national priority.

The Next Step—
—is a two-pronged approach: in emphasizing transit’s value, it seeks to elevate its importance vis-à-vis other issues; at the same time it seeks to drive the indi­vidual to shift from attitudes to action.

Recommended Positioning:
Public transportation, just like health care and education, is a critical national priority. We all have a stake in supporting public transportation, whether we ride it or not.

Since TCRP Report 63 was conducted, the objective has adapted to current times. The current report is the next step: garnering support for public transportation, irrespective of ridership.

With the high price of gas, increased congestion, the fragility of the environment, U.S. dependence on foreign oil, security in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq, a more serious climate exists today. However, it appears that most people do not think of the positive effect that public transportation currently has in connection with many of these issues. The communications message must therefore create awareness and, critically, it must educate the audience on the important role public transportation plays in our society and our economy today and its potential for far greater positive impact with increased individual, com­munity, and government support.

Key support messages that reinforce the recommended positioning and clarify the personal and universal benefits of public transportation include

  • Public transportation has economic consequences: enhanced property/real estate values, employment opportunities, growth of communities.
  • Public transportation has environmental benefits: reduced congestion, reduced pollution.
  • Public transportation saves productive time by lessening traffic congestion.
  • Public transportation makes the United States less dependent on foreign oil.
  • Public transportation saves people money on gas.
  • Public transportation enhances quality of life through reduced personal stress and provision of independence for non-drivers.
  • Public transportation improves people’s lives.

An advertising agency can develop a number of taglines that reinforce the recommended positioning. One example of a tagline that not only reinforces the recommended positioning but also includes a call to action is

Public Transportation. Let’s get going.

This tagline works on two levels: it communicates the function of public transportation (to move people) and implores the audience to act in support of this critical service.

Recommendations for Execution

Because the subject of public transportation is not inherently exciting to most people, and even less so to non-transit riders, compelling execution of the communications theme is critical to the success of the campaign. The execution needs to be provocative, eye-opening, memorable, and relevant to the individual—transit user and non-transit user alike—to have impact.

The strategy can be executed in various ways, perhaps with humor or in a problem/solution format, but it should always be supported with facts and real-life examples. Based on the research, we suggest that when featuring people in marketing campaigns, transit agencies take care not to overemphasize riders with disabilities or disadvantages because this will dilute the personal relevance message.

Representative Campaigns

An example of the type of campaign we are recommending would be developed around the concept: Imagine life without public transportation.*

This statement would be supported by strong graphics/photos of real-life situations that portray congestion, pollution, economic consequences, and so forth. Statistics could also be used (for example, the amount of time spent sitting in traffic)—again, such information must be compelling, visually dramatic, and easily understood. As the interviews with the general public demonstrated, individuals frequently found it easier to identify the benefits of transit when they pictured their communities without public transportation services.

Although the above campaign would resonate in a high- to medium-density area, it would not work as well in a low-density area in which life might not change dramatically without public transportation. However, the concept could be posited in reverse—Imagine life with more (or bet­ter) public transportation. In this case, the positive effect that would come with an enhanced tran­sit system would be featured—economic development, more jobs, better air quality, and so forth.



*We are aware of a 2004 PT2 print advertising campaign created by APTA entitled, “How would that affect you?” which focuses on critical members of the community doctors, teachers and crossing guards—not being able to get to work because of a lack of public transportation. While this execution may be directionally similar to our recommended strategy, it still focuses on the ridership aspect of public transportation. The communications strategy we have set forth is broader and more ambitious in its objective: to convey the critical role public trans­portation plays in the life of the individual, the community and the nation at large.