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Going High Tech and High TouchEncouraging that First Ride
As DART opens new markets by extending its rail and bus system, the ongoing challenge is to encourage people to try the system and then build upon that usage. And as the agency shifts its focus from fast growth to operating one of the most extensive transit networks in the nation, customer service and outreach will be the key to getting those new riders on board.
The arrival of the Green Line in December 2010, combined with the fast-approaching openings of the Orange and Blue line extensions in 2012, are opening new frontiers of potential riders who – until recently – did not live near a light rail station.
To entice these North Texans to try transit, DART is using an array of strategies – which involve both the latest technology and plenty of old-fashioned, face-to-face contact.
Delivering Real Time Information
"In this age, people are accustomed to getting information instantly, and transit agencies are using the mobile tools available to interact with customers," says DART Chief Marketing Officer Nevin Grinnell.
DART is keeping right in step with its tech-savvy riders; in mid-2011, the agency launched "On the Go. In the Know.SM" - a branded marketing campaign touting DART’s multiple electronic information tools.
DART was an early adopter of email notification, and now the suite of services includes service alerts via its mobile website; SMS text messages sent through Twitter and Facebook; and the My DART Updates subscription service, which allows riders to receive email and text alerts in the categories they select. Additionally, DART recently launched the "DART 41411" service, which lets users text their current bus or train Stop ID and get via reply text the next scheduled arrival times.
Some messages can't be conveyed in 140 characters or less, and face-to-face relationships have been the cornerstone of DART's success from the start. Community Relations staff regularly meets with citizens, addressing concerns and putting a human face on a public agency.
"Constructing a rail is line is a disruptive process," says Lawrence Meshack, DART senior manager of Community Relations, "By meeting people, we're able to educate our potential customers about how public transit will improve their quality of life and bring economic development to their city."
Whether answering questions or ensuring that sound walls are installed and trees planted, DART works closely with neighborhood associations, businesses, churches, schools and local leaders during bus service changes and rail openings.
"Because we get out early in the process, it is clear to our stakeholders that we want to hear from them and that we care. That translates into healthy ridership once new service is in place," says Dawn Dorman, DART Community Relations representative.
Educating Youth and Adults
If the key to attracting new riders is getting people to take the first ride, DART's Transit Education program does so by the busload, literally. On-site presentations and tours for students and adults provide a guided first encounter with ticket vending machines, boarding the bus or train, and safety.
"By educating children about public transportation, we are developing our future riders," says Jessica Lennon, manager of DART's Community/Education Outreach program. "And kids are great marketers to their friends and family."
Putting Out the Red Carpet for Special Events
Many customers' first experience on DART is a train ride to the American Airlines Center, downtown for a charity 5K, or - for the last three years - to the gates of the State Fair of Texas. Service during these and other special events is an opportunity to win transit converts.
"When people have a positive experience on our system, they are more likely to take it again," says DART Project Manager III Clarence Barber. "And their word of mouth can become our best advertisement."
To make sure the surge in riders is handled well, DART staffers begin planning months in advance. Multi-departmental teams plan for various contingencies, including those outside their control such as weather. Often, DART adds more or longer trains and runs them more frequently. The agency also may deploy backup bus shuttles and place staff at key locations to assist customers.
Further, the agency regularly extends the hours of its HOV lanes on I-30 West for events at Cowboys Stadium and the Ballpark at Arlington, improving the mobility for sports fans and residents coming from the DART Service Area.
At the end of every special event initiative, the team evaluates its own performance to continuously improve service.
Targeting the Employer Market
For most transit systems, commuters constitute the majority of ridership - and the greatest opportunity for customer growth. Such is the case at DART, where approximately 1.4 million jobs in the service area are accessible by bus and/or rail.
"Selling passes through employers is only a portion of what we do," says Dena Mercer, DART Consumer Programs Sales Representative. "We also help companies during relocations into the service area, provide one-on-one trip planning at employee events, and give presentations about the economic and environmental benefits of taking DART."
Through DART's Commuter Choice Initiative, employers may subsidize transit pass or vanpool expenses pretax up to $125 a month, or $1,500 a year, per worker. Alternatively, employees can set aside up to $125 per month before taxes to pay for transit or vanpool services. In some cases, employers and employees split the cost of commuter benefits.
"Employers are among DART's most valuable allies for getting someone to take public transportation for their daily commute," says Bob English, senior manager of Consumer Programs.
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