The Streetcar – 5 – On the back of branding

January 21st, 2013

This is the fifth in an 8 part series on “The Streetcar”.

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on the rails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

The streetcar will be one of four lines in the region that are heavily reliant on branding and advertising to stand out from the crowd and attract riders. The other three are the Southbank Shuttle, SORTA’s #1, and the 2X. I’ve touched on this idea before as it relates to the first two, so I do recommend you check out those links. Let’s try and unpack some of those thoughts here though and see how relevant they are to the streetcar. First, we’ll need to establish a baseline: what sort of advertising/branding treatment do most transit lines get? And then we can move on to what sort of treatment they might warrant.

Both agencies do some advertising for their services generally, but little to none for specific lines except for the three just mentioned.

Bus shelter ad

Part of a larger campaign aimed at weakening ‘bus stigma’ by introducing relatable characters

SORTA places billboard ads, bus shelter ads, has booths at fairs and festivals, and buys various print advertising to promote several campaigns aimed mostly at getting people comfortable with the idea of using transit. They also have pens and keychains and stuff like that to hand out at events.


TANK doesn’t seem to do quite as much advertising, which would reflect their smaller overall size1.

little girl holding a balloon

Anyone who can find me a TANK balloon will get a cookie. SORTA: You need balloons too. Get with the program.

They do evidently have balloons which is pretty cool and they sponsored my transit map, getting their logo on the back. Also, because I really want an excuse to share this photo from their facebook page, I’ll tell you that they also seem to do some public events for charity.


TANK-Man: protecting Northern Kentucky every single day from over-whelming the burdens of car ownership.

So generally speaking, both agencies do things to keep their organization in the minds of their customers and supporters(pens and balloons and TANK-Man), things to gently reach out to people who are transit-curious(SORTA’s billboard ads)and obviously, things to give specific information to people who are looking for it(maps, schedules and websites).

There are exceptions…

Bus shelter advert for the #38X

Bus shelter advertisement for the #38X

…but they seem rare. This advertisement for the #38X is the only one I can think of so I guess it’s the exception that proves the rule. Only three lines really get a special treatment. Here’s a sampling of it:

2x advertisement

The 2X becomes the ‘Airporter’

TANK southbank shuttle

The Southbank Shuttle. I really like TANK’s photographer, whoever (s)he is.

1 4 fun

And the #1 for fun (Not for serious use)

We have a few things going with these lines:

And really, it’s only these three. Other lines get ads all over their interchangeable vehicles, have no distinguishing marks except for the changeable electric signs, and are known only by numbers and sometimes an extension name like “17 Mt Airy”.

scientology ad on a bus

This is NOT SORTA’s Scientology line. it’s just the #11 wearing a costume.

The #4 doesn’t have a big permanent sign on it proclaiming it the ‘Norwooder’ (Hehe… Norwooder), it’s just the #4. That makes sense, too. Often it’s useful to switch a bus from one line to another, such that it might be the #4 coming into Downtown, but when that same bus leaves, it’s running as the #28 with a simple change to the sign. The number is an indication of a path that any given vehicle could follow. Marking up vehicles with special branding just means you can’t use them for other lines and ties your hands a bit when you’re planning schedules or even doing maintenance. Say you need 3 buses to cover a given route at the busiest part of the day. You have to assume that any one of those three could break down unexpectedly or need significant scheduled maintenance so you need to have four or more buses in the garage so you can always be sure of having three ready to go. If all your vehicles are interchangeable, you spread out the risk of a breakdown on any particular line and can have fewer extra vehicles sitting around just in case.

Anyway, back on topic! These three lines do get special treatment. I used the phrase “stand out from the crowd” earlier. That’s essentially what they’re trying to do and the advertising, often aimed mainly at tourists, can be pretty heavy handed. Here for example the rest of the system is completely ignored:

Downtown Cincinnati guidebook map

This map, from the Cincinnati Chamber’s free guidebooks to Downtown, while hard to read, shows only the #1 and the Southbank Shuttle. The guidebooks are all over the place, but are particularly present at places like hotels and the convention center. They’re designed for people unfamiliar with the City. In a word, tourists.

And here special signs make the Shuttle’s stops stand out quite a bit more than normal:

Southbank Shuttle stop sign

A crude measurement involving my computer monitor and a ruler reveals that the Shuttle literally gets more than 100 times more space on this sign than any other line. By the way, at this stop I’m pretty sure all of the other lines are going to Cincinnati and Covington too, but the sign totally fails to mention it.

The streetcar will likely stand out like this too. Every map of the route that I’ve seen has completely failed to acknowledge the rest of the transit system.

streetcar development map

From the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog

People have held design competitions for the stops, each of which will be a large, expensive and highly visible change to a significant piece of the sidewalk rather than just another number on a post.

The stops that are already preemptively(and presumptuously) marked actually already have larger signs than most other stops. The streetcar doesn’t even exist yet and it’s more visible!

Cincinnati streetcar sign

And then of course there’s the vehicle itself which stands out dramatically from the rest of the fleet and won’t likely carry any general advertising for Scientology or cars or other nonsense.

There is a problem with “standing out from the crowd”, and that’s the direct implication that the rest of the transit system is a “crowd”. To increase emphasis on one line so dramatically is to decrease emphasis on every other line.

For many people, the numbered lines(~97% of the system2) drop into a second category of “other routes” and the only lines they know are the ones that have distinct vehicles and maps that are highly simplified. The “other routes” all look alike, don’t tell you where they’re going, and are literally harder to spot. When we create such a distinct hierarchy, every visual cue tells people that the “other routes” aren’t as important, rather that the Southbank shuttle is very important and so is the streetcar. The shuttle may actually be important, but every other line is important too. Every parent thinks their kid is the center of the universe, but everyone who’s not a sociopath realizes that asserting just that to the kindergarten teacher would be way over the line. That is to say that their kid is not the center of the universe. They may feel that way, but they realize it isn’t actually true and that other children are equally important to themselves and their own parents.

Just so, this lopsided emphasis of some lines over and above others wouldn’t make sense if we assumed that all lines are equal. All lines aren’t equal, but not in a way that favours the streetcar. Some lines, like the #33, #17, #4, and #43 are significantly more important than the rest. They go more places, more frequently and as a consequence have many more riders. The corridors they form are critical for thousands of people every day. This just simply cannot be said of the #1 or the Shuttle, or yes, the streetcar.

So I think we’ve gone pretty far out of balance here. We have some lines that we’re effectively advertising to people as the only thing they need to know about, but none of those lines(I’m excepting the 2X from this now) is actually very useful at all in the big scheme of things. They’re really pretty minor routes and are so by design. I suspect that that actually may be why they get so much advertising to begin with. When we design a route with only a small subset of people in mind(say, tourists or yuppies), we make a line that is destined to have relatively low ridership. We most often see these lines designed to fulfil a political end3. I think perhaps that when people see the (structurally) low ridership of a less useful line they try to correct it in a way that’s familiar to the people who helped instigate it, that is, the people who applied the original political pressure. What do they think of first? Advertising. Branding. Distinction from that mess of “other routes” that they don’t actually understand very well. This is ‘their’ line in question, intending to serve people they know well, and they actually do know what reaches those people. So they make simple maps and big signs that ignore the rest of the system while explaining just one tiny part of it that they think is important to a particular group.

What’s perverse is that if they did understand the mess of “other routes”, in almost any case, they wouldn’t have proposed a narrow solution for a small constituency in the first place and it wouldn’t have needed the expense and sillyness of a distinct brand because it would have just been plainly useful from the start.

If most lines don’t need special advertising and branding, I think we need to ask ourselves collectively why only a few lines should get it and which those should be. I think we might also usefully ask why only some lines get a distinct brand when just about any line might benefit from it(Norwooder! :-P). It seems like the very strong brand and high level of visual distinction being created for the streetcar is probably in part a preemptive defense against the political embarrassment that would result from the naturally low ridership on a poorly chosen route.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Also, I don’t live in KY, so I could just be missing some of it.
  2. Source: My ass. But still, it should be close.
  3. Definitely true for the Shuttle(Chamber/tourism people in NKY I’m pretty sure) and the #1(Arts orgs and I think it even get’s money from the casino if I remember right. Don’t quote me on that).

9 responses to “The Streetcar – 5 – On the back of branding”

  1. Neil says:

    What are the ridership figures for the SouthBank Shuttle? I’ve seen it pretty heavily used (use it a lot to get from downtown to Kentucky) though it is a much smaller bus. I have relatives who live in the historic district by the Robling in Covington.

    The only criticism I have of it is that it ends in an area that’s not very well connected to Bellevue – middle of a parking lot separated from residential by a forest – it should go at least part way into Bellevue on the main drag.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      I don’t know. I’ve never seen TANK publish their ridership figures but that certainly should stop anyone from asking them ;-)
      I’ve been wanting to check them out myself, so let me know if you’re able to find anything!

      SORTA’s stats on the data page of this site.

      Any opportunities to hack a footpath through the woods? Could actually turn into a nice quiet walk if it’s not fenced off or private property…

      • Neil says:

        If it was possible that would be cool, but I’m not sure what the Medical Arts building/land owners would think… take a look here, its kind of maddening, google maps tells you to take a 20 min walk, when its really only 5 if you were to go from there.

  2. Jake Mecklenborg says:

    I haven’t ridden the Southbank Shuttle in 10 years. I can’t tell you where it goes. Yeah, I see those signs around, and I see the dorky buses puttering around, but honestly I have no idea off the top of my head where to catch it on the Cincinnati or Kentucky side.

    Meanwhile, I haven’t been back to Boston in 10 years but I know exactly where those subway stations are. Same with any rail system in the world — the stations only very, very rarely close or move. Somebody from 100 years ago can go to Boston or New York and get on trains at the exact same stations and go to the exact same stations.

    With buses there are simply too many unknowns. Once a little too much doubt enters somebody’s mind, they call a cab or get in their car and drive instead of messing around with the bus. As someone who rides a variety of Metro bus routes regularly, riding a new route is always a little confusing — where should you pull the rope? Where exactly are the stops closest to where you want to go? The streetcar, like all rail, eliminates so many of the doubts. Oh, and the ride quality is way smoother, it runs on electricity instead of diesel, the vehicles last decades longer, etc.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Taking what you say about the conceptual stability of rail as true for the sake of argument, my question for you then is this:
      Why should this exact route benefit from that stability? Why not another, I would say more useful route like the main trunk of the #43 or the #4?

      It doesn’t make much sense to to talk about making something stable unless what we’re stabilizing is the best thing possible. One should never seek to stabilize mediocrity.

      • Neil says:

        The unfortunate thing is, cincy has to settle for mediocrity until they get something better slowly. The sad thing is Metromoves failed completely (it baffled me when it was on the ballot why it would fail so hard, though at the time I didn’t follow local politics that closely).

        Politically this is the only way to get it done. While there are valid points about routing (espcially when looking at the 1 which is so circuitous that its useless), now is not really the best time to be making these arguments – there has been a very hard battle fought and now the system is finally sluggishly getting built but it seems like its a done deal. Any critique may alienate a lot of your supporters Nate.

        In programming/problem solving there is a method known as the iteritive way of getting things done, start with a rough outline of lets say pseudocode (or in this case a basic streetcar line) and then work your way towards developing something more comprehensive like extending it to the Zoo, with branches going to Walnut Hills and other neighborhoods. Hopefully this will be a start to getting people to accept transit more in the region and allow for a buildup of support for light rail.

      • Nate Wessel says:

        I don’t think the route is mediocre, just a lot less than it could be. (Perhaps a poor choice of words earlier)

        And I don’t think that’s a result only of it’s length at all. I totally get a slow approach to fleshing out a system. I’d certainly be in favour of any even very modest increase to SORTA’s budget for example. Big dramatic things don’t need to happen for there to be positive change. I do however think that our willingness to settle on the initial route is going to prevent us from ever growing the streetcar into anything of regional significance. Also, I’m really not convinced that we should want to do that. But that’s the topic of the next post, so I digress ;-)

        And I totally hear you about it being just a bit too late for a critique. In my defense, when this project was in a more flexible planning phase and just getting up to speed politically, I was only halfway through planning school and really didn’t know what was going on, or if I did, I probably wouldn’t have had the ability to really think critically about it just yet. Neither did I have an appropriate venue to publish my thoughts then.

        To be clear, I don’t want to see the streetcar fail. I’d actually really like it to happen! That symbolism that I talked about in the last post is important to me too when I’m not over-thinking it. I do however want to be sure that as we think about expanding it and building other major transit projects that we’re able to think more critically about what’s best in the long term and make the best possible decisions. That’s where a list of lessons we should learn from the streetcar process could come in handy.

  3. Brittany Skelton says:

    With the argument that rail encourages/facilitates ridership because lines and stations are fixed and therefore stable, my thoughts are: wouldn’t highly visible, aesthetically pleasing, functional, comfortable, modern bus shelters + benches dispersed at regular intervals like a trail of bread crumbs have essentially the same effect as rail + stations? (and if not at regular intervals, at least at nodes for boarding!) How much would it cost to line routes #17, #4, #33 and #43 with new shelters (that just as importantly serve as landmarks) to brand those four routes as compared to building the X miles of the first phase of the streetcar?