A spoon full of sugar, or, a lesson in persuasion from @RideUTA

The Atlantic Cities featured Utah’s burgeoning transit system Monday, exploring how the Utah Transit Authority shifted public opinion in favor of light rail.

Here’s what stood out to me:

…one of UTA’s most effective strategies for uniting people was targeting those who don’t use public transit. The agency and its advocates pointed out that TRAX ridership saves 29,000 trips — or two full freeway lanes — in the Interstate-15 corridor every day. Road-reliant businesses like UPS ran ads explaining that FrontLines would help residents get their packages quicker by reducing traffic.

In other words, UTA explained to people what they had to gain from transit, whether they planned to use it or not.

A TRAX train on South Temple. Today most people Utah not only accept light rail, but they want more of it.

A TRAX train on South Temple. Today most people Utah not only accept light rail, but they want more of it.

That’s an important lesson. Too often, I think, projects focus on benefits to specific stake or shareholders. Some transit advocates, for example, champion it because it’s vital for lower income community members. That’s an important role that transit plays, of course, but that particular argument can make it hard for people outside that demographic to see what they stand to gain. In other words, it’s a true argument but it may not be the most effective thing to bring up.

Some arguments also focus on huge, abstract and seemingly insurmountable problems. “Fixing Utah’s air quality” seems like a good example of that type of argument that I’m seeing a lot right now. Sure, we all agree that needs to happen, but how it will happen and what we specifically need to do seems to get lost.

As a writer by profession, I’m as fascinated by the rhetorical processes that shape cities as I am by the policies and buildings most urbanists focus on. And in that light I think UTA offers a lesson not just for transit, but for everything: help people understand what they specifically stand to gain by a proposal — for transit, for density, for buildings, even for eliminating over-regulation like parking minimums — and success will be much more likely.

In other words, a spoonful of sugar makes almost anything easier to swallow.

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One comment

  1. Erik

    Totally. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of it all. We’ve been trained to realize that certain things help low-income people (insert poor) and we manage to think that it won’t help the rest. Indeed, owning a car is expensive for anyone, let alone someone making at or near minimum wage. But that’s not our problem. The survey of who views themselves as “Middle-Class” clearly indicates that we all like to think we’re in higher educational and income brackets than we may actually be.

    So what if some high dollar advocacy group spent as much as auto-advertisers promoting a different message? One that shows someone riding their bike, and saying “You’re welcome, one less parking space needed” Or someone riding the bus texting and saying, “Aren’t you glad I’m not in the car driving in front of you?” Someone taking a train to their destination 3 hours away and saying, “Wow, traffic isn’t so bad today”

    Surely the cost efficiency, convenience, and environmental impact is an easy sell but has to be beaten into our subconscious every commercial break for a good 60ish years… add in pretty girls, mountain ranges, and a catchy pop/rock song and I think we can start our own firm.

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