Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Activating Dead Space

While on a recent trip to Washington D.C., I stayed in the Crystal City area. For those who are unfamiliar with the area, it is the home of most of the large defense contractors, along with a large military base not far away, and a number of office buildings. In addition, there's a Metro stop, numerous hotels, a mall, and a slew of restaurants. Overall, it's rather pedestrian friendly and a fairly nice urban place to be on business - though I imagine it's dead on the weekends.

One thing that struck my eye was this pleasant plaza, conveniently located under a highway overpass. 

While not an ideal solution (removing the overpass), I did find several people eating lunch in this plaza each day, and it's certainly better than barren concrete. This small, humanizing step toward an inhuman location made it much more pleasant and made me smile as I walked past. This is respecting the urban form and using what we've got to make the best of a bad situation.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Study in Incentives - The Del Taco Debate

A Study in Incentives – St. Louis Aldermen

One of the key topics in marketing is understanding your customer – why do they buy, why don’t they buy, and what incentives can we, as marketers, use to influence these decisions. In urban circles, too much seems to focus things that need to be done because urbanists think it’s a good idea – not on what incentives the “customer” has to make a decision. Urbanism would be a lot more successful if we spent more time asking the fundamental question, “What’s in it for me?” and less time proselytizing about what we think the right decisions are.

One recent situation in St. Louis has sparked my interest as a study in incentives for a St. Louis Alderwoman. A developer wants to tear down a mid-century modern building and replace it with new, more pedestrian focused retail:

Source: Waymarking.com

Of course, it’s not so simple. This building is in a historic preservation district, so in theory it needs to be reviewed and approved for demolition. There is a way around this – the Alderwoman for the area, Marlene Davis, has proposed an ordinance blighting the building and approving for demolition, along with another that would create a special tax district for the new development.

Rather than decry the nearly inevitable demolition of this building, let’s look at the incentives for the parties involved:

The Developer: Gets to tear down a building that doesn’t produce much income (and has a bankrupt tenant), and replace it with more and more modern space that will likely drive higher rents. On top of that, the taxpayers will help tear it down and finance the replacement. It’s a win, win, win situation for the developer. Of course, we’re all paying for something he’d like to do anyway. Even if the building is approved for demolition, this plot in the middle of a major university campus does not need tax financing to help pay for it.

Marlene Davis, Ward Alderwoman: Gets to point to “progress” in her ward. Likely promises of jobs created in the area (no matter that it’s retail and likely low paying). Keeps a wealthy constituent happy, producing potential reelection income in the future. The incentive for every alderman is to keep wealthy people who can make campaign contributions happy, no matter what the detriment to the city. The developers promise jobs and "the future," most of their voters simply don't care, and the rest of the city has no say in their continuing employment as an alderman.

There’s no real downside to a single alderman supporting demolition of anything in their ward - other than thousands of people in other wards getting upset at the demolition of this structure – people who don’t vote for them anyway. If I were an alderman in the current setup, and someone wanted to tear down a building in my ward, all my incentives are to allow it - if not provide assistance to help them do it.

The rest of the Board of Aldermen: Here’s my main point. 27 other people have absolutely no skin in the game, except maintaining the status quo. The reason “aldermanic courtesy” exists is that the incentive for all of them is to allow each of the other 27 to make their own decisions in their own wards, and to support their activities. Stand out against someone, and risk your own bills being debated. Defer to courtesy, and everyone gets their way. 28 cute little fiefdoms, all working on their own, with a few occasional larger issues that require some debate.

As is, the incentives for the members of the Board of Aldermen are to let each of their colleagues make their own decision, without any real debate or analysis of the impact on the city as a whole. There’s nothing in it for them if they oppose a “local” choice in another ward, so they don’t do it. They defer, over and over again. That’s no way to run a ward, and certainly no way to run a city. 

By operating as independent fiefdoms, beholden to ~500 votes and the money it takes to garner those votes, the Board of Aldermen is completely broken. The incentives of each of the aldermen are not in line with those of the city, and certainly not in line with the majority of the city's population. Reduce the number of aldermen, make them accountable to larger, more diverse groups, and align their incentives with the overall performance of St. Louis, instead of a few deep-pocketed developers and well-connected interest groups.  

Friday, April 8, 2011

From Wired: Smartphones provide the illusion of control, benefit public transit.

From a Wired article today: 


The study asked 18 people to surrender their cars for one week. The participants found that any autonomy lost by handing over their keys could be regained through apps providing real-time information about transit schedules, delays and shops and services along the routes...

...The point is for transit agencies to provide enough information to put riders in control of their experience and have greater choice in when and where to ride. People don’t want to feel they are at the mercy of paper schedules, even if they are, and there’s nothing worse than waiting for buses that may or may not be on time.

The implications here are huge. Going back to my previous post - if we are able to empower individuals and give them the illusion of control - really, just better information - they are much more likely to choose transit, like it, and therefore, support it. This is just one way to target one segment of Metro riders - not everyone has a smartphone, and certainly not everyone is interested in using it to ride transit. For one segment, though, this would be a lifeline.

As a next step, how about apps for all major mobile phones, tied in with GPS, that provide:
  1. Nearest stop for bus or Metrolink
  2. Time of next departure
  3. Routing via Google Maps
  4. Points of interest nearby, including restaurants, stores, and cultural activities
Improving Metrolink isn't about replacing cars. For 99.99% of the population, trying to convince them to give up their car is tilting at windmills. We simply don't live in a city that's built for walking, biking, and transit only - unless you've got a lot of time or don't mind missing a lot. We can, however, turn even occasional users into supporters of transit as a concept and alternative. Seems that this is one way to do it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Marketing transit - make the casual user into an advocate

Last week, my wife and I went to Busch Stadium for opening day. Since we live about 4 blocks from the Shrewsbury Metrolink it was the perfect opportunity to take transit and avoid the hassles of parking, traffic, and drinking and driving. 

The train at Shrewsbury was packed. I'm used to half a dozen people boarding, and there wasn't a seat to be found. It was jammed with excited Cardinals fans with the same idea as us.

Riders at Shrewsbury Metrolink ready to go

From my discussions on the ride, most people were either first time riders or had only ridden to Cardinals games. They didn't commute, and didn't see why they would want to ride Metro on a daily basis. 

Metro needs to do whatever it can to make these trips spectacular. 81 times a year, Metro has the chance to convert some of these one-time users into advocates for the system and help continue to shed negative perceptions. Make it beyond a train trip into a pleasant experience for all involved, and help people get into the spirit of loving transit. One wonderful experience can erase the memory of hundreds of horror stories and STLToday.com comments.

Some suggestions:
  • Absolutely, positively, always have extra trains running for games. I realize it's an added expense, but the lines after the game are usually horrendous, and adding trains later doesn't help, as people are sore about having spent 30-45 minutes in line already. 
  • Position staff at ticket machines to help customers purchase tickets, instead of only having security checking tickets and guiding traffic on platforms.
  • Create some festive spirit both on the platforms and on the trains. Surly employees grousing about staying behind the grey line doesn't help. Cheery employees with Cardinals hats, shirts, or even buttons would get people into the gameday spirit. 
  • Look at working with the Cardinals to brand the Stadium Metrolink stop. Right now, it doesn't look any different than any other stop. That's a tragedy, since it's next to someplace most hold dear.
  • Relax the rules on drinks, just those days. Most other mass transit will allow me to have a bottle of soda. Why not Metro on the way to the game? 
If Metro has already done the hard part of getting them to the platform - why not make it the best experience possible and convert those people from users, into supporters, and ultimately, advocates for the system?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Urbanist Attitudes - Selling (Out) the Dream

I'm an avowed urbanist. I love living in the city and pretty much everything about it. I'm happy to gush about it at every opportunity to anyone willing to listen. From walking to bars and restaurants, to my engaged neighborhood, to our family only needing one car, there are lots of benefits to living in the city - for my family. There's the rub, for us, it works.

Most urbanists don't seem to get that last point. Urbanism works for them, but it doesn't work for everyone. I think most urbanists (myself included) would like to see the whole world move back into the city, but that simply isn't feasible. We, as urbanists, need to do a better job of selling the dream of city life. 

If you're an urbanist, have you done any of the following?
  • Made fun of the suburbs
  • Told someone from the suburbs that you think the suburbs are stupid
  • Berated the car based lifestyle to someone who lives it
  • Joked about how "there's nothing out there"
  • Asked a suburban resident: "How can you stand living there?"

If so, you're guilty of selling out the urban dream. You're just helping reinforce people's idea that the city is a place for people not like them. You're attacking one of their biggest life decisions - where to reside - right at its core. You'll never, ever, sell them on the idea of urban living with a start like that.

This blog is about the intersection between urbanism and marketing, including how we sell urban life to people who don't live it, or don't want to live it. There are benefits and drawbacks to both lifestyles. However, no good salesman starts off on the wrong foot by attacking their customers' current choices. 

My pledge is to strike those terms, ideas, and arguments from my vocabulary. To focus on the positives of urban life, and not the negatives of suburban life. To bring up the urban lifestyle, while respecting people's decisions to life a suburban life. I'd love to see you do the same.