Saturday, March 2, 2013

Knowing is half the battle

In the February 8th Board of Directors meeting for Metrolink, a study was presented of the I-5 corridor, developed in partnership with Caltrans in order to establish a baseline for marketing efforts to encourage public transportation while Caltrans undertakes $1.6 billion in improvements to the I-5.

Unsurprisingly, freeway and rail commuters both rated getting to work on time as quite important. However, there were massive differences between the two when it came to the perceived reliability and comfort of trains. Only 30% of I-5 commuters considered trains a reliable means of commute, while 70% of Metrolink passengers thought so, while there was a 49% difference between freeway and Metrolink commuters on whether trains made for a pleasant commute.


Meanwhile, for the Orange County Line, which is the one drivers would be switching to, Metrolink reported that weekday trains arrived within 5 minutes of schedule 94.5% of the time in 2012 (while combined on time performance was 98.81%, the weekend on time performance was only 89.47%; I honestly have no idea how they came up with their combined performance figure). Now, it is entirely possible that I may be a very unusual person, but an arrival time of 94.5% within 5 minutes of when it is scheduled strikes me as a very reliable commute. There is also the additional reliability of a schedule: There is no need to worry about what traffic will be like, there is no need to add additional pad time to one's commute because today is Friday or a holiday or other such reason. On the other hand, there is the lower reliability inherent to low service levels which is what one is restricted to with Metrolink without a monthly pass allowing free travel on Amtrak trains. With that said, the massive difference in opinion between users and non-users implies that it can be considered quite reliable.

The problem, as with many rail patronage issues, is one of knowledge. The most frequent refrain that rail advocates hear when talking with friends, coworkers, or the normal person in the street isn't that the train doesn't work for them, but rather "There's a train?" With such significant differences between user and non-user perception, the primary focus of Metrolink, and Amtrak as well, has to be on simply bringing the existence of the train as well as its reliability as a means of transportation to the knowledge of the common commuter. People will not take what they do not know to exist or reliably work.

Luckily this is a fairly easily remedied flaw: Simply spend money to promote the service. This need not be overly flashy or expensive, but it does need to impress upon the qualities of the service. For instance, simply driving mobile billboards into the peak hours of traffic congestion, when even the fourteen or more lanes of Interstate 5 grind to a halt, with a simple message such as "95% arrive within 5 minutes; how reliable is your commute?" on the billboard is a relatively cheap and effective means of spreading the information. The crucial thing however is that it must be advertised and people need to know that it exists. This does mean that spending only $9 million over three years for all of California's trains is absolutely ridiculous and needs to be greatly expanded. $9 million ought rather to be the annual sum for the Surfliner, Metrolink, and COASTER services until such time as they run into physical capacity limits. With all of the numerous convention centers, colleges, and vacation destinations within the area that they serve, and the absolutely abominable traffic for which Southern California is infamous, the advertising strategy should be fairly straightforward and cost-effective.

Yes, this does call for substantial increases in spending and probably lowering the cost recovery of the regional rail services for a few years until a sufficient degree of mindshare has been taken and ridership ramps up appropriately. But raising awareness of the service's existence is absolutely critical to building ridership and grassroots political support for rail service. In the fight to win customers, getting them to know of your existence and value is the first and most crucial half of the battle.

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