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MTS' Free Ride Day Changes How San Diego Moves

Chief Executive Officer
San Diego Metropolitan Transit System

“Try it, you’ll like it” is the basis for any free giveaway. With public transit, it’s not so simple. To be successful, the free offer needs to be much more than turning off fareboxes and ticket vending machines and inviting people to climb aboard. There needs to be a cause to galvanize a region; there needs to be a call to action that cannot be delivered by the agency alone.

In California, every level of government and all other major institutions have Climate Action Plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The success of these plans depends on getting people out of their cars and onto alternative modes. The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s (MTS) Oct. 2 “Free Ride Day” sought to leverage our services as the primary way for these entities to achieve their goals with the hook of pushing a “Choose Transit” message.

Communication Was the Key

Free Ride Day was the culmination of a six-month MTS marketing campaign with two phases of advertising: a launch of our direct “Choose Transit” call to action, focusing on and helping people to identify various reasons why they should ride, followed by riders sharing why “I Choose Transit,” which included a series of videos highlighting reasons for choosing public transit. You can see these videos here.

MTS placed Free Ride Day covers over all ticket vending machines and fareboxes on Oct. 2.
The third phase included a significant public relations effort to enlist the support of every major regional stakeholder. The MTS marketing team met individually with staff from all nine cities in our service territory. We also reached out personally to businesses with which we regularly work to get them on board. This resulted in every city in our region, San Diego County, the U.S. Navy, the University of California and many other large employers joining MTS to amplify the Choose Transit and Free Ride Day messages.

The biggest hurdle we encountered was ensuring we provided all our stakeholders and cities with the right information and getting them to share it with constituents at the right time. We developed a comprehensive list of contacts and emails; communication was key.

We also made promoting Free Ride Day easy for these groups. We developed an e-toolkit that each partner could access on the MTS website, complete with sample social media posts, proclamations, op-eds and graphics in every shape and size. This approach lifted our message to more audiences and strengthened the credibility of choosing public transit. Of note: no partner charged us a dime.

We were trending on Twitter; elected officials got involved; 80 different organizations posted about Free Ride Day; and millions of free impressions were created for the day by our partners. Our website traffic doubled.

All our partners joined us for a news conference in advance of Free Ride Day, and the day itself was covered by all news organizations in San Diego and many in Tijuana. On the day itself, we had pop-up events at a dozen of our transit centers where we handed out Choose Transit key chains and stickers similar to “I Voted” stickers so riders could declare that they chose transit.

Leveraging Assets and Seeing Results

This was MTS’ major marketing push for the year. All three phases of our campaign included emphasis on out-of-home assets, such as billboards, along major freeways and boulevards (heavily leveraging our own assets including vehicles, bus shelters and bus benches). Another major component was the use of digital ads on social media channels, and we supported the campaign with a morning news television buy.
Many parents and their children used Free Ride Day to try public transit for the first time.

While we have held free ride-type days in the past—albeit on a far smaller scale—this was the first region-wide Free Ride Day, incorporating both MTS and North County Transit District services in San Diego. The event proved to be a huge success. We recorded almost 53,000 more rides than the same Tuesday one year before—a 17 percent increase. Every region in our territory experienced significant gains. In particular, our Green Line Trolley, which skirts the doorstep to thousands of middle-income condo units, saw a 37 percent jump in ridership.

The campaign cost slightly less than $200,000. Our daily cash revenue is also about $150,000, bringing our total investment in the day to approximately $350,000. To break even, we would need to turn 405 of the 53,000 additional people who rode on Free Ride Day into monthly riders (less than 1 percent). Early results have been positive. Combined, our bus and rail operations experienced a monthly increase of 330,000 passenger trips compared to the previous October—a 4.5 percent increase.

How We Move Forward

The return on investment can’t just be measured in dollars and cents, however. This effort raised our brand awareness, it elevated the environmental discussion and it positioned MTS as a solution and a partner in the fight for clean air. The result is that businesses and governments around the region are more open than ever to join our programs to promote public transit ridership.

Our job now is to keep the momentum going. We plan to focus promotional efforts with new riders on key bus and trolley corridors, promoting #Transit Tuesdays with our regional partners to target the Monday-Friday commuting public. We will also continue to hold events that show our appreciation for our current and new riders.

Turning around the decline in ridership is not an easy proposition. MTS believes that Free Ride Day was the impetus necessary to create the kind of partnerships and synergy the effort demands. It was about far more than free rides, it became a movement to support public transit across the region.

Other transit systems embarking on something similar should consider:

* Engaging stakeholders, including cities, to promote a Free Ride Day on existing platforms such as newsletters, websites and social media;
* Creating marketing materials utilizing real riders and their stories. Find testimonials from riders and promote the reasons why they choose public transit; and
* Engaging employees and getting them excited about the initiative too. Our frontline personnel, for example, were given stickers and keychains to hand out to riders at transit stations.

To learn more how San Diego MTS produced Free Ride Day, contact Mark Olson, manager of public relations.

MTS held a news conference to promote Free Ride Day and was joined by many stakeholders including MTS Board Chair Georgette Gómez, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Rear Admiral Yancy Lindsey, the commander of Navy Region Southwest.
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