A statement on social injustice. Click to read more.

How transit can seize the opportunity to set a new standard for years to come

By Kate Brangaccio and Cindi Auten
Cindi Auten
Senior Partner, Engagement and Transformation, ICF Next
Aug 13, 2020
6 MIN. READ
How will your messaging, operations, and technology changes enhance the future for commuters and travelers?

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, transit ridership in many US regions dropped by nearly 90% as lockdowns forced all but essential workers to steer clear of buses, trains, and subways. Even as restrictions loosen, commuter behavior both in the near term and for years to come won’t look anything like it did in the past. A May 2020 survey conducted by IBM found that over 20% of survey respondents who regularly used transit said they no longer would, and 28% said they would use it less frequently.

Aside from transit agencies losing revenue, fewer people using transit also means the potential for more cars on the road—which has exponential costs to regional economies from congestion, parking, and productivity to air quality, road maintenance, and work zone safety.

Regional transit agencies not only provide a direct benefit to the individuals and communities they serve, but they also provide an essential service to those who need it. While a sizable portion of the workforce has benefited from their ability to shift toward telework, transit is still essential for service industry and shift workers without vehicles to get to work safely.

But if transit is to realize its full benefit to the community and economy, it needs to draw back customers it has lost. While customer hesitations around personal health and safety are valid, there are steps that transit agencies can take as they communicate and operate over the next six months that will leave a lasting impression on their customers for years to come.

We have spent the last few months talking and working with transportation agencies and transit organizations to help address opportunities to reset, adjust strategy, and create lasting and meaningful opportunities for the path ahead. Below are six ways to seize the opportunity to create a better, safer experience for your customers:

1. People are talking. Listen. You have the opportunity to listen and understand your customers’ point of view, sentiments, and risk tolerance to go back to their commuting habits. By listening, you take what you’ve learned and can tailor communications on how to address their issues. Almost all of us use social media to voice concerns. You can leverage social media to listen and engage. Do this by first identifying which social networks your customers are on, set up a monitoring tool using your name, keywords, and even phrases or hashtags. Set up a plan to monitor (daily is best) and respond. That includes how you directly respond to criticism or praise (it’s not all bad), or how to change your overall communication strategy to benefit the greater good. And remember, in a remote world, video has become a more powerful tool than ever to engage on a “personal” level.

2. Create an iterative plan for “more talk and more action.” Focus on being helpful with actionable information. Moving from “we are open” or “we are here for you” to “here’s how we are here for you” and “here’s how we are helping to keep you safe.” How do you make this happen? Virtual brainstorming, ideation sessions, and workshops are powerful ways to bring in multiple stakeholders to discuss audiences, strategies, messaging, tactics, and operational changes. Cover questions like: What will you say? How will you say it? How will you know it is impactful? How do you decide where to go next? Good facilitators can effectively orchestrate the discussion, help articulate an action plan, and construct a delivery model.

3. Stay hyper-focused on the customer experience. Customer expectations have shifted dramatically. It’s always been about the customer, but the customer’s viewpoint is different now. In today’s commuter and public transit environment, the customer plays a critical role to ensure safety, whether that’s wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, or not commuting if they are sick. These are critical elements of today’s experience. So how are you adapting but still remaining true to your core brand values? Remember, based on your communication, customers have a certain expectation set throughout their transit journey.

4. Adjust communications and operations to be nimble and flexible. Challenge your status quo. Take a closer look at “business as usual” efforts and approaches and reassess the way you’ve done things for years. This is the time to think differently. For instance, does your social media policy allow only one-way communication? Think about how you can adjust the way you interact with customers to be even more helpful and responsive.

Address the steps you can take to programmatically change to meet the needs of your customers. To maintain being viewed as a trusted source as a transit agency, be authentic and lead with empathy. Focus on the experience throughout their journey, from how they pay their fare, to how they receive information about schedules and delays, to the safety, comfort, and cleanliness of their on-board experience. Words backed up by actions couldn’t be more critical. In short, modeling behavior and leading by example must take center stage.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is one of the most recognizable brands in the New York market for public service. It’s a part of the fabric off the region’s daily life, and much the same could be said for major transit agencies nationwide. What they do, what they say, and how they say it matters—perhaps more than ever before. MTA is walking the walk by enlisting more than 4,000 employee volunteers to hand out millions of masks and hand sanitizers, as well as installing fixed hand sanitizer dispensers in subway and rail stations, visibly deep-cleaning stations, subways, buses, and trains daily, and affixing signage and floor decals to encourage social distancing. They’re also injecting a touch of humor to help relieve a potentially stressful customer experience.

5. Build trust for the long haul. In your journey of seizing new opportunities, think about how you can build trust while simultaneously protecting public health safety and the economy. How do you ensure that your customers know you are there and listening? What are you doing to keep the finger on the pulse of consumers for timely response?

  • Engage in social listening (see #1 above) to understand sentiment and risk tolerance. What are you doing to actively listen and respond, and how are you ensuring to communicate your plan as public needs change?
  • How does your messaging and materials evolve, often in real-time, with rapidly changing guidelines?
  • How can you establish influencers that have the trust of your commuters? Others can often help carry your message, as they are trusted sources of information. 
  • How do you address discrepancies in messaging from different sources? How are you equipped to respond to misinformation or disinformation?  

6. Adopt technology and operational changes for lasting transformation. Lastly, we are seeing the explosion of the use of cashless and integrated payment systems, along with contactless payment methods being integrated into mobile devices and digital experiences. Implementing these new technologies and evaluating how you might leverage them to build and retain customer loyalty and introduce rewards models will be mission critical for transit agencies looking to the future. 

A good example of how this may play out is Transportation Technology Today’s recent interview with North Carolina Tollway Authority’s executive director, J.J. Eden. In the podcast interview, he discusses the current COVID-19 impacts on traffic, transit, and how agencies might innovate in the future using technology to navigate those impacts and other significant changes.

Our current situation is difficult for everyone, especially those who rely on transit authorities to provide the mobility and networks they need to live their lives and fulfill their daily routines. But it’s also a challenging time for the transit authorities themselves. And this challenge is a chance to take lessons learned and turn them into opportunities for the future. Customers’ mindsets and habits have changed—we have a unique opportunity to seize the moment for a better future.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
Go to ICF Next
By Kate Brangaccio and Cindi Auten
Cindi Auten
Senior Partner, Engagement and Transformation, ICF Next

The latest marketing trends, uncovered.

Subscribe to get insights, commentary, and news sent straight to your inbox.