Community Editorial: To Sell Public Transit, Add a Large Dose of Fun

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As traffic counts continue to increase across Southern California, forcing ugly discussions like the widening of Interstate 405, government bureaucrats and elected officials find themselves increasingly scrambling to persuade voters to embrace mass transit.

Yet to gain a better market share, mass transit executives need to adopt some of the slickness behind the advertising campaigns fueling the fortunes of auto giants like Honda, Toyota, Ford and General Motors.

“It’s the fun factor,” argues Darrin Nordhal, an urban planner by trade who has become a noted author on innovative uses for public spaces.

“You can’t browbeat people or shame them,” Nordhal recently told the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board while visiting on a book tour. “You have to make it easy and enjoyable.”

Nordahl wants transportation agencies to take a page from the auto industry and do a better job of designing projects to engage consumers. To Nordahl, that means loud designs, like bright Orange buses, and transit centers that are fun and interface easily with biking and other trail connections.

“They [auto manufacturers] spend billions to understand why cars ply our emotions,” Nordhal said.

In contrast, public buses and waiting stations are generally unimpressive from a design standpoint, Nordahl argues.

“The next challenge is how to makes these vehicles loveable,” he said, noting that Matchbox replica cars recently released a version of an LA transit bus.

Nordhal, who recently wrote “Making Public Transit Fun,” notes that marketing mass transit options as “cool” can do the most for hiking public usage of mass transit.

Words like “joy, fun, delight” have to be included more often in transportation planning if public projects and services are to gain public support, Nordahl argues.

Yet some editorial board members wonder whether mass transit can ever really compete with the car in Southern California.

“It’s so much of the culture that is California,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative daily website, FlashReport. “It’s the ultimate statement of freedom.”

Yet Nordhal notes that the millennial generation isn’t into cars in the same way as those who grew up in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. This generation is more interested in spending its disposable income on computer tablets and iPhones than on carburetors and headers.

Community Editorial Board member and urban planner Jack Eidt notes the irony that despite that kind of support among younger customers, many public agencies like the Orange County Transportation Agency are cutting bus service.

Eidt also notes that city councils and traffic engineers need to change how they view traffic. Despite the political challenges, today’s traffic engineers need to figure out how to slow down urban traffic to allow for more walking and mass transit options.

Eidt notes that’s not easy in Orange County. Yet there are indications that Orange County is changing.

Editorial board member Jennifer Muir, an assistant general manager for the Orange County Employees Association, points to the public bus trolley in Laguna Beach as an example of mass transit with a cool interface for the public.

“We should look for these kinds of opportunities in our own communities,” Muir argues.

And Orange County’s cities are becoming better about considering mass transit, argues editorial board member Lacy Kelly, executive director of the Association of California Cities, Orange County.

Kelly pointed out that the county grand jury touted the Anaheim Regional Intermodal Transportation Center, commonly referred to as ARTIC, as an example of forward-thinking transportation projects in Orange County.

Kelly also singled out Will Kempton, CEO for the transit authority, as someone who understands the budgetary pressures facing mass transit and who is open to the idea of mass marketing.

She points to the success of the OC Fair Express, inexpensive bus packages to the Orange County Fairgrounds, and the hugely popular Angels Express, bus service for game day from nearby train stations.

“We need to celebrate that more,” Kelly said, noting that Nordall’s ideas should easily find receptive audiences in Orange County government circles.

— NORBERTO SANTANA JR.

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