In the second of the series about the Phoenix light rail opening (you can read the first here), I’m going to look at how Phoenix promoted its light rail opening, and what Seattle can learn from their experience in time to make our Light Rail line’s July openning a big deal.
Phoenix’s light rail opened to extremely positive news stories about the construction, stations and that trains that were packed with people getting on the line for the first time (see the video) and even news stories from other cities jealous of the new line. Can this happen here? And why did it happen there?
A first thing to note, is that Phoenix has been enjoying a fair bit of civic pride anyway. The Arizona Cardinals were in the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star game was held in Phoenix, and there were light trains wrapped in NBA All-Star game advertisements. Phoenix also has been in need of some positive news, with home prices in Phoenix down 40% in a year, and super-suburb Mesa the poster child for foreclosure.
A major component for the positive news coverage is that Phoenix came close enough to finishing on time and on budget as to not garner massive criticism. Sound Transit and Link have a different story, since Sound Transit had serious troubles at the beginning of the decade, and faced calls for a re-vote and even arguments for dismantling the agency. Seattle also has a unique tendency for complaining and navel-gazing, and I’m certain the Seattle Times will write another less-than-enthusiastic op-ed piece for the lines opening (no one has told them that it’s easier to read the newspaper on a train than in a car). Outside of some positive television news stories – the line opening is going to make for great television – I don’t expect a lot of positive news coverage.
So what can be done here to build excitement? Gimmicky things like station name t-shirts or route-map t-shirts might work. With a link stop a block from Safeco field, trains wrapped in Mariners colors might help. Other gimmicks that Phoenix tried were a pre-opening ride for contest winners, and an appreciation dinner for those who helped get the line built. Fireworks can’t hurt, especially if the line opens at the beginning of July closer to the 4th of July, and a party at each station might be hard to pull off, but will definitely bring the people down. But for Sound Transit, the most important thing is hitting the July date, and having no hiccups in the first few days.
Sound Transit is going to hold some open festivities, and certainly transit advocates can get involved in that. This blog will be holding a station-area photo scavenger hunt and a possibly a pub crawl. TCC is going to be there, and I’m sure other environmental and transportation groups are going to be there too. Hopefully, the beautiful summer weather will get the people out. And that’s where it matters here, I think. Seattleites won’t be impressed with the new line unless it gets riders. Now we’re more than a month out from Phoenix LRT opening, and the first ridership numbers were significantly more than expected. The best way we can build excitement around the opening is to ride the train, and the best way we can ensure positive news in the longer run is to do the same.
So it turns out to be pretty simple, but not that easy. For the next post in the series, I’ll look at the inevitable problems that the Phoenix rail line has faced since it opened, and try to see what we can learn from their experience on that front.