Opinion Pieces: Individualised marketing of public transport – time to take it seriously?

Opinion Pieces: since 2007, Prof. David Hensher has written an opinion column in the Australasian Bus and Coach magazine, where he monthly discusses a lot of different transport-related hot topics. In this section we are revisiting these columns.
June 2009
The recent ‘debacle’ with changed timetables and routings on buses in Sydney is a salient reminder about the power of the customer. All good intent was exercised by the operator to improve services; however the residual crumbs of discontent were not factored in.
Is it not time to actually visit households and identify the types of bus services (timing and routing) that would make a difference? This bottom up customer-focused individualised planning pays dividends. We know – just look at the accumulating evidence on the travel smart voluntary travel behaviour change program in South Australia in particular, that shows how many individuals have been informed one-on-one about specific services that might be of value to them (which are often not well known by potential users of public transport). Such an approach is especially useful when households have recently moved into a neighbourhood and are less familiar with the options, and possibly more open to consider public transport before habit sets in, provided that the information provided is seen as being tailored to suit the needs of the potential switcher to public transport. After all we buy a car, borrow money, and work with a travel agent to construct a vacation or business trip as a one-on-one arrangement, so why not do it for planning regular commuting and other local travel?
How does the travel smart program work? There are various versions, but essentially, a telephone survey can be used to sample individuals and then to classify them as ‘regular users’ (R) of alternatives to the car, and for householders to nominate themselves as ‘interested’ (I) in reducing their car use. The sampled households so classified can be offered access to a range of maps and brochures on travel options. Following the delivery of the information face to face by the public transport operator, they might be provided with a free travel pass for one month as an expression of interest. Importantly all participants who ordered information must be given a reward. For regular users of public transport it might be in the form of a letter from the public transport operator, or a small gift. Following the identification of the sample of interested persons, a follow-up meeting to take a close look at the person’s current trip activity and where public transport may be able to be used would be worked through, and the free pass used to encourage trying a particular bus and/or rail service.
While the human resources might be substantial, so is the task of attracting people out of their car. Since there are so many reasons why people stick with their cars, then why not try and identify those people who are sufficiently close to considering public transport but need a little help from the bus operators or regulator to assist in identifying ways of making the switch. The focus on the population as a whole is far too aggregate in nature if we want to make a difference where it can count. This also includes being on the look out for pockets of serious discontent that would react the way people did in Sydney last month when a major timetable change occurred.
It is time that we also started to question the information that is provided in the spaghetti format of hard copy glossy timetables. I have great trouble understanding most of them. I wonder what the public think. Do we ever ask them?
Food for thought
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