Selling a bus to an Angeleno

[This post was originally published in Objective Subject’s Perspectives.]

While visiting Los Angeles for the first time in 2009, I was surprised to find the local transit agency, Metro – the third largest in the country –branded with a clear identity including a beautiful livery system with color-codes for each service (Local, Rapid, Express).

One of LA's Metro Rapid Bus
One of LA’s Metro Rapid Bus

Michael Lejeune, Metro’s Creative Director, in his Union Station office, Los Angeles, 2009

I was struck by a government agency utilizing design to sell public transportation to arguably one of the most car-happy cities in the U.S. I contacted Metro’s Creative Director, Michael Lejeune. He explained the setup of the identity program: Lejeune was recruited by a new CEO to be the new Communications Director. He would only accept the position on the condition that his title be executive position (Chief Communications Officer), with sufficient budget to compete with car companies, that spend millions of dollar selling an alluring lifestyle.

Once Lejeune and another designer were brought on board, they set out to create an own-able mark (the previous Metro symbol was so generic that it could not be trademarked) and an aesthetic that would position Metro as a viable alternative. A comprehensive ad campaign poking fun at car culture, and consistent communication through typical channels resulted in opinion polls exhibiting a 40% increase in user perception of efficiency, frequency and quality of service, even though at that time, there were no significant changes made to these areas.

The improved perception of Metro locally eventually contributed to changing perceptions of mass transit in the city.

LA Metro’s Opposites Campaign
LA Metro’s Opposites Campaign

Effects include the passage of L.A. County’s half-cent sales tax increase, known as ‘Measure R’, which is bringing over $40 billions in new transit funding, and the approval of the Westside Subway Extension, which had traditionally been opposed by the wealthy cities on its path, Beverly Hills chief among them. Of course hundreds of dedicated public servant worked towards its success, but it is interesting to consider the impact coherent communication contributed. The day the line opens it is estimated it will be the busiest transit line in the country. One could argue the main reason it did not get built before was because of perception, first and foremost.

This success story has been reported far and wide, with Lejeune and his colleagues talking to media about the successes of the initiative.

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