October 11, 2010
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|HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE 2010 APTA ANNUAL MEETING
Gladwell: Keeping the Message Simple
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
“There is an enormous amount of power in the concept of the public good,” said Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers: The Story of Success.
That was his message when he spoke Oct. 5 at the APTA Annual Meeting in San Antonio, TX. And the most effective ways to harness that concept—in this case, convey to the public the importance of public transportation—are to keep the message simple, use appealing stories and appropriate images, and if possible, find a charismatic spokesperson.
He cited the example of seatbelts, noting that initially, U.S. drivers strongly resisted using them, considering them an “unwarranted government intrusion” into their lives. Once advocates shifted the message from attempting to influence adults to promoting the use of children’s car seats, the children then became advocates for seatbelts, and the percentage of adults using them rose from 15 percent to 65 percent.
“Approaching the issue from a different way made all the difference in people’s willingness to respond,” he stressed.
Another way Gladwell proposed to frame the message is to emphasize social and economic equality. “Public transit is a vehicle of economic equality and opportunity—the same access to jobs, education, and cultural events to everybody, regardless of resources. A way we make our society a united and equal place …. isn’t only about taking people from point A to point B; it’s something far grander and more crucial and central to the American dream.”
Gladwell talked at length about how the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, AL, created an unusual partnership with workers and religious institutions—with the goal of civil rights equality. People needed to ride the bus to and from work, and “for the bus to be segregated was the ultimate inequality … The boycott was about the dignity of workers.” So churches became bus “stations,” and religious leaders organized transportation to ensure that the workers kept their jobs. “You can reframe what you do in such a way that you can bring in allies who may never have thought they were allies,” he said.
He also pointed to public transit as a “public good,” similar to parks, schools, and other benefits that improve the general quality of life, as opposed to “private goods” owned by individuals. “People are getting fed up with the current emphasis on private goods,” he said. “If you talk to people and listen, you find they’re talking about public goods.”
Gladwell continued: “If you have $1 billion, you have all the private goods you can acquire. There’s nothing more that will make your life better that you can purchase for yourself. The only ways in which your life could improve—cleaner air, fewer potholes, less crime—are all public goods.” For that reason, he added, the wealthiest citizens should support paying more taxes to support the common good, much as they did in the 1950s as America rebuilt itself after World War II.
Public transit professionals “need to make a much stronger argument that public goods will be more beneficial than buying things as individuals,” he said. “What would really make your life better? I’d like better schools for my kids, a shorter commute time, I want my kids to be able to play outside without worrying—all parts of being a community.”
Sharon Greene, principal, Sharon Greene and Associates, presided over the session.
APTA’s business members sponsored Gladwell's address.