Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, September 16, 2013

WMATA, the Marketing Imagination, and the weekend service-constant repair dilemma

A few months back the Post had some articles and an editorial about the weekend service problems. Earlier in the week it was reported that WMATA ridership has dropped by 9.3%, see "Metro ridership, revenue down" from the Post.  There was an entry in GGW about it ("Riders abandoning Metro on weekends"), and many of the comments are thoughtful.   Vicky Hallett, the DC Rider columnist for the Express, had a column about the topic too, "Faulty Logic," which mostly was a humor column.

Yesterday's Dr. Gridlock column in the Post mentioned the weekend service problems in passing, "Metrorail riders need the same purpose-driven forums," but instead focused on how Metrorail is much less customer oriented by comparison to Metrobus, and it ought to change.

The Gridlock column made me think about one of the classic collections of articles in the marketing profession, called the Marketing Imagination, by now deceased Harvard Business School professor Ted Levitt.  One of the reprinted articles, "Marketing Myopia," is the source of the idea that "GM isn't an automobile company, it's in transportation," etc.

From a book review by Bob Morris:

By way of background, in 1960 (in its July-August issue), Harvard Business Review published “Marketing Myopia” in which Theodore Levitt ties marketing “more closely to the inner orbit of business policy.” Specifically, “Management must think of itself not as producing products but as providing custom-creating value satisfactions.” Companies should be marketing-led rather than production-led. That will happen only if and when there is a total commitment by senior management (and especially by the CEO) to satisfying current customers so that they remain loyal, and, to attracting new customers. Only marketing creates or increases demand. Without demand, there are no customers.

In the same article, Levitt makes an important distinction: “Selling concerns itself with the tricks and techniques of getting people to exchange their cash for your product. It is not concerned with the values that the exchange is all about. And it does not, as marketing invariably does, view the entire business process as consisting of a tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse, and satisfy customer needs.”

Not that WMATA "sells" rather than "markets" but marketing is about customer relationships in intricate ways whereas mostly "the railroad" (which is how the bus division refers to Metrorail) acts very much "production-led".

I wrote about this in 2005 and 2006.  "Making Transit Sexy" makes the point that public organizations have multiple publics, and need to manage external communications much more broadly. 

One of the concepts from the book Strategic Marketing for Not-For-Profit Organizations by the U of Michigan Social Work professor Armand Lauffer.that has stuck with me over the years is that organizations have three publics:

1. The input public that provides the organization with resources;
2. The throughput public that does the work of the organization; and
3. The output public to whom the organization's activities are directed.

Transit marketing, promotion, and publicity has at least two different segments of "output publics" -- (1) the people who are interested and involved in the planning issues around transportation and (2) the people that "consume" transit services.

And in "More on Metro and rethinking transit marketing," I wrote about the public communications failures of former GM Richard White--these failures culminated in his losing the job--making the point that even government agencies, but especially transit agencies, have to manage their relationships with the public beyond marketing, also in terms of public and strategic communications, which expanded just a bit these points from the 2005 entry

I still haven't come up with a satisfactory phrase for the concept of transit-enabled living, and somewhere in the intersection of the concepts from both "Marketing Myopia" and "Marketing Imagination" lies the point that WMATA is in the business not so much of moving people but in setting the stage, through non-automobile-based transit, for making better communities.

Anyway, WMATA's weekend service problems are considerable on the lines that are partially shut down for maintenance.  It is shaping people's attitudes toward Metrorail in a very negative direction.

So I propose an "interim" measure:

For trips starting or ending on the Metrorail lines on the weekend that have partial service shutdowns, each trip should be discounted by at least $1 (not unlike how there is a surcharge now of $1 per trip for use of a paper farecard).

It would be a sweetener and recognition that the service is extremely degraded compared to regular service.

(Note that on the lines that don't have serious shutdowns, Metrorail service on weekends is still pretty good.  And the bus shuttles on the shutdown portions of the system can even work out well, depending on the nature of your trip.  Still, waits can be pretty horrific.)

It's not quite "Marketing Imagination," but it would be a policy recognizing the costs of service degradation that are imposed on the rider, and it would have a more marketing and communications effect than the typical way WMATA approaches such matters normally.

It would cost the system money, no question.  But weekend service isn't meeting customer expectations and WMATA should take responsibility for it. 

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At 9:49 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I dont' know. You've identified the problem -- which is the metro is not customer oriented -- but the solution seems to be on the order of take two asprin and call me in the morning.

And can a public entity where the cost recovery is low -- or in the case of the federal workforce subsidized -- really turn it around and compete for customers rather than make arguments for increased contributions every year?

Michael Perkins and the pass movement at least have the virtue of turning it is a membership group -- like a PBS station. I am not sure that is viable as well.

Sarles is doing OK. The escalator thing may be working. The billion dollar order for new cars is a postitive. Fixing speakers and AC is cars is also real progress.

I'd say in advertisiing focus on where metro can be faster, not cheaper. The issue on weekends isn't price, it is that the reduced service is in no way faster than the alteratives.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

True, but price is a way to make up for the degradation. A recognition that it is a problem. But you're right that time is the most important aspect overall, not price.

wrt "passes" this gets to the point of transit-enabled living. I wish I could come up with a great turn of phrase for it.

WMATA's pass prices for rail are more than double the cost of most other transit systems.

So in SF or NYC, transit is part of your way of life in a manner that it isn't in DC.

The other thing I was thinking about was how in the old days, the folklore is that parents would use their transit passes M-F and then let the kids use the passes on the weekend.

It's kind of an illustration of the two different elements of mobility.

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

well I used to aruge with Perkins that the pass system was pretty minimial compared to the federal transit payments. Every fed I know has too much money of their metro card and used some of for personal use. The horror, the horror.

While a pass could work for non-federal workers, I suspect there simply aren't enough of them willing to pay.

Now imagine a combined metrorail/bus/bikeshare/car2go pass of 150 a month. Would that work? You'd have to limit car2go use to something like 60 minutes.

ANd yes, I do think the "car-free" tag was trying to capture this idea. The downside is it has turned into a kulturwar word, mostly because it is a pain to live car-free and does entail a lot of sacrifices. GF had a huge blow up yesterday that we didn't drive into georgetown and didn't want to circulate home.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... if only Suzanne biked, which is not a problem for rg...


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