Does Denver’s Regional Transportation District Have a Marketing Problem?

Denver Union Station
Denver Union Station

This guest commentary originally appeared on the Denver Urbanism Blog. Last week, the Regional Transportation District announced that in February Pauletta Tonilas will become the agency’s next general manager of communications. The former RTD executive will return to Denver from Los Angeles where she served as chief communications officer of LA Metro, an agency known for its innovative use of marketing and design.

Recently, a close relative of mine was considering a job in Denver for which she would have needed to take commuter rail into Union Station. However, being unfamiliar with taking public transit she was concerned about waiting on the train platform in the cold. I’m not entirely sure what was more important to her: the waiting or the cold; however, I think that a certain degree of confidence in the reliability of public transportation can cut through those concerns. And yet, where do we see RTD promoting itself in compelling and convincing ways?

As it happens, the A line has been in the news recently. A November 2018 Denverite article quotes the General Manager and CEO of RTD remarking that the A and B Lines were experiencing “flourishing ridership” combined with a 97 percent “on-time” rate. Music to my ears. I can attest to this too from my own experience these past six months relying (and enjoying) almost daily on the A Line to get to and from work.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that you just don’t see that kind of information in the public sphere as much as it should be. That’s basically my assessment of how RTD is promoting itself.

I will say that a quick skim of RTD’s Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube pages revealed little in the way of commentary about where it shines (there’s this but it’s long) let alone a compelling narrative that suits the modern attention span. Searching for something better, I came across a well done commercial from Metrolinx, which manages transit for greater Toronto.

What I’m driving at is an assessment of how RTD is promoting itself. That being said, I don’t work in advertising or marketing and will avoid using this space to throw out ideas or pretend to know what I’m talking about when it comes to actually putting together a marketing strategy. I believe there are gains, albeit small compared to what major modal capital expenditures can produce, to be made through RTD investing resources in developing compelling narratives around the aspects of our transit system that do work well.

To those who would reject this idea and reference RTD’s current challenges, consider that in 2017, customer satisfaction for the overall quality of RTD’s services ranked high, averaging between 4.00 and 4.49 on a five-point scale (see, 2017 Customer Satisfaction Survey and note that the survey is conducted on a three-year cycle).

I’d love to see RTD make a sustained, concerted effort to get out the word about its reliability on behalf of those who do have accessible, convenient transit options but choose to drive instead. Perhaps the simplest way to summarize my point is this: ask yourself, when’s the last time you saw an RTD ad that made you think or feel something about the benefits of using public transit in Denver?