Targeted Strategies for Generating Ridership

The more targeted a marketing message is, the more likely it is to create action. A transit system’s most cost-effective opportunity to build ridership is by working through partner organizations in the community to deliver specific messages to populations that can benefit from the transit services provided.

Gatekeeper Outreach

Many organizations serve as “gatekeepers” for potential transit riders, and can give you access to their constituents. These include:

  • Social service agencies and human service organizations
  • Employment programs
  • Senior centers and complexes
  • Schools and colleges
  • Youth programs
  • Support organizations for persons with disabilities
  • Medical clinics and facilities

These organizations, and particularly their front-line employees, often are charged with identifying transportation options for getting their clients to programs, appointments, trainings, classes, interviews, and jobs. As a result, they have the potential to serve as “salespeople” for public transit.

To capitalize on your relationships with gatekeepers and their potential to be marketing partners, start with these three steps:

  • Establish a list of gatekeepers for the target markets in which you hope to build ridership. Create a simple database that includes the organization, contact person, and contact information, including email. These individuals should be provided with regular email notices about changes in transit services and programs, availability of new passenger guides, and other updates.
  • Solicit opportunities to conduct “training” sessions at meetings of front-line staff who need to understand how transit works so they can pass the knowledge on to their constituents. For example: front-line staff might include social service caseworkers, medical office staff persons, or student services staff at a college. These trainings would include an overview of the routes, how to use the schedules to plan trips, how to use the Google trip planner (if available), and information about demand response and ADA paratransit services.
  • Work with the gatekeepers to identify ways that you can market to their constituents. A variety of communication channels generally can be accessed through partnerships with gatekeepers:
    • Permanent information displays in their facilities
    • Distribution of customized information
    • Bulletin board posters and flyers
    • Inclusion of transit information in orientation packets
    • Website links
    • Email blasts
    • Newsletter articles
    • Travel training presentations
    • Prepaid fare programs

Targeted Communications Channels

Note that it is not necessary to do everything with every organization. Gatekeepers know what works best for their population.

Permanent Information Displays

Work with gatekeepers to establish permanent transit information displays at high-traffic locations such as social service lobbies, medical complexes, grocery stores, laundromats, and schools. The displays can be created easily using standard fixtures which can hold a standard-sized poster or flyer while also providing space for a supply of passenger guides. Click here for links to display resources. Each display can be customized to provide the information most relevant to the target group for that location. For example, a display in the student center at a community college might highlight the routes that serve the college and promote the economy of commuting by transit.

These displays provide long-term communications value (unlike an ad that exists for only one day or week).

Information displays provide long-term communications value.

Customized Information (audience-specific)

Every community has different audiences with different travel needs. This becomes apparent when you begin to identify target markets. Remember that the more targeted your strategy and message, the more effective you will be in generating trial ridership. Brochures and flyers designed with a specific target group in mind can use photos and graphics that these groups will relate to and can provide information that is just what they need to hear. Your relationships with gatekeepers can provide you with the mechanism to deliver your customized information to the target audience at no cost.

Example of Customized Information:
A rural system in northern California worked with the area's local public health provider to encourage low-income women to use their intercity bus route to travel to a nearby city for mammogram screening. The system created a detailed trip plan flyer that showed exactly how to use the intercity bus and the connecting city bus to get to the imaging center and back, with a short visit to the mall on the way home. The public health provider distributed the flyers to the target women along with a prepaid ticket for the trip and their referral appointment. The objective was to get women who had never used the service before to try it and see that it offered them independence and mobility.

Bulletin Board Posters and Flyers

Information posted on bulletin boards at offices, schools, medical facilities, and other venues is a very low-cost communications medium that can deliver information specific to the target group. In some cases, a PDF of an 8-1/2” x 11” flyer can be emailed to gatekeepers with a request that they post it in their facility.

Website Links

Most gatekeeper organizations will have websites that are used by their constituents. Ask gatekeepers to provide a link on their website to your website as a transportation resource for their staff and clients.

Orientation Packets

Schools, human service organizations, and medical facilities often provide their new clients/students with packets of relevant information. Ask them to include a targeted flyer in this information that tells the individual how they can use transit to travel to the relevant destination.

Email blasts

Some gatekeepers (particularly schools and colleges) communicate with their constituents via email and can distribute transit updates in this way.

Newsletter Articles

Many gatekeepers publish email or hard copy newsletters and can include articles about transit services that are relevant to their constituents. Provide them with draft articles or news releases on a regular basis.

Travel Training and Presentations

Gatekeepers can offer opportunities to conduct transit travel training with their constituents.

Travel training can take several forms. It can be approached casually, as a group presentation. Opportunities for a casual group travel training might include:

  • Welfare-to-Work class presentation
  • College student orientation
  • Senior nutrition program presentation

In this instance the training might consist of a PowerPoint presentation, followed by a short on-bus experience or one-on-one personal trip-planning assistance. You may want to provide participants with a free ticket to encourage them to make their first solo trip.

Travel training also can be conducted by peer volunteers. For example, Lane Transit District’s Bus Buddy program pairs trained senior volunteers with new riders to take them on their first bus trip, providing travel training along the way.

Or travel training can be more formal, such as a comprehensive one-on-one program for persons with special needs — those with developmental disabilities, sight impairment, or the need to use a wheelchair or other mobility device.

Travel training can be a powerful tool for generating ridership as it takes the guesswork — and the apprehension — out of riding the bus for the first time.

Some gatekeepers provide transit travel training for their own constituents. You can support these efforts by providing gatekeepers with customized information, a video or PowerPoint to use in their presentations, and/or free tickets to use when training riders.


To encourage potential riders to try transit, you may want to include an incentive as part of your communications to target groups. The incentive might be a free ride, or some other type of value. Following are several examples of incentives that might be offered:

  • Free round-trip ticket provided to participants at a travel training presentation to encourage them to make their first solo ride.
  • Free one-week pass provided to students or commuters to encourage them to try commuting by transit.
  • Free ride day for all riders or for a specific group — seniors, youth, service workers in uniform, etc.
  • A premium gift (such as a T-shirt or water bottle) given to riders who take X number of trips during a promotional period.
  • Sign-up at community events to win a free monthly pass or other prize.
  • Rewards for regular riders — e.g., buy 11 monthly passes and the 12th is free.

Remember that, like the message, the incentive needs to be selected to fit the needs of the target group.

Fare Programs

There are several ways in which you can work with gatekeeper organizations to encourage transit ridership by making fare media more easily available to customers.

Sale of Fare Media to Social Services and Schools

Some social service and education programs will have funding to purchase transit passes for their clients. Make sure you have a mechanism in place that makes it easy for these purchases to be made.

Gatekeeper Sales Outlets

Gatekeeper offices can serve as convenient sales outlets for transit tickets and passes. Since customers are going there for other services, they can purchase their transit fare media without making a separate trip. Locations such as senior centers, one-stop centers, and school bookstores make ideal pass sales outlets.

Specialized Fare Media

Fare media that are designed around the needs of specific types of riders can encourage greater use by those target groups. For example, some transit agencies offer Semester Passes that are sold to college students. These passes are good for the full duration of the college semester and offer a significant discount for prepayment. College students can purchase the pass when they get their financial aid at the start of the term and then have their transportation guaranteed for the full semester.

Lower-income riders often find shorter-term fare media, such as Day Passes, to be more attractive and affordable than traditional monthly passes, which require a more substantial outlay of cash.

Prepaid Fare Programs

Prepaid fare programs are a formal partnership between a transit agency and community organizations. Under a prepaid program an organization pays a fixed amount to the transit agency and, in return for that payment, all members of a defined group (for example, enrolled college students or employees) ride fare-free.

Prepaid programs have been shown to significantly increase transit usage. They also create a natural marketing partnership between the transit system and the sponsoring organizations. The transit agency wants to build ridership, and the sponsor wants to receive benefit for their investment. Hence the sponsor has an incentive to promote the transit system to its constituents through the types of strategies outlined in the previous section.

Example of a transit partnership that encouraged ridership by providing a free EcoPass to county employees.

While prepaid programs are most common with colleges and universities, they also have been implemented with employers, apartment complexes, and neighborhoods. The ecoPASS program in Flagstaff, Arizona, is an example of such a program, which is marketed to employers.