Dear Metrolinx: The Problem Is Not Your Communication Strategy or Your Branding

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Dear Metrolinx: The Problem Is Not Your Communication Strategy or Your Branding

The larger concern is a provincial government playing politics with Toronto's transit.

EgCrosstown

Above ground LRT track now being installed for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Photo via Metrolinx’s Twitter.

In my last column, I asked Metrolinx to do a better job with their communications on the Crosstown project. In response, the Crosstown people reached out on Twitter, and Metrolinx sent a long letter to the editor of Torontoist. Most people just do the comments section, but a more formal reply in this instance is only welcome.

The gestures are gratefully appreciated. And I believe these communications are sincere. I have met Metrolinx staff at transit consultations, and everyone has been professional, knowledgeable, and kind.

In the spirit of clarity and keeping the communication lines open, I am using this week’s column, in part, to share some of their comments and respond.

“We are very sorry to hear that Ms. Wood felt let down by the communications and outreach efforts of the team.”

I believe this is sincere. I want to underscore, though, that I don’t feel anyone owes me a personal apology or explanation. It’s not that I feel “let down.” My point is that everyone in the area, even just passing through, deserves to have their lives disrupted as minimally as possible, and strong public communication is at the heart of that.

“The Eglinton Crosstown LRT is a $5.3 Billion transformational project, and is enormous and complex. It represents the largest single investment in transit in Toronto’s history, and it is currently the largest transit infrastructure project under construction in the country. When it’s complete in 2021, it will bring 19 new kilometres of rapid transit to Toronto’s transit network.”

Here, I have to say: I have no time for even the slightest defensive gesture of “this project is big.” You’re not the first to build a big thing in a big city. You’re part of the provincial government. They’re responsible for a lot of big things. Don’t humblebrag about how hard it is. Just step up.

But on the rest, I only say: Hurray! It’s big! Let us celebrate its bigness! This project is of an appropriate scale and ambition for Toronto as the provincial capital, an important economic hive for the region, province, and country, and a city with a growing population and a public transit system that is easily a generation behind where it should be.

I am glad we are investing to this degree, and the Crosstown is a good project. It’s money well spent. Let’s get everyone on board metaphorically now, so they will do so literally when it’s up and running.

In its letter, Metrolinx sets out some of its communication strategy:

“Before work begins, the Community Relations team reaches out in a variety of ways to ensure that residents and businesses in the area are aware of the upcoming work and any related impacts. For example:

  • Construction notices are mailed to all residences within 500 metres of the Eglinton corridor.
  • Teams canvas the area in advance of the work, handing out copies of the notice on the street and speaking directly to residents and businesses.
  • The information about the work is posted on thecrosstown.ca, shared on Twitter via @CrosstownTO, and distributed to email lists.
  • Local city councillors and their staff are briefed in advance of work starting.
  • Informational videos explaining changes to pedestrian movements or traffic set-ups are created.
  • Corridor-wide open houses and virtual town halls are held.”

I think that’s a good list. The key point is the first few words: “Before work begins.” My point was—and I want to be very clear about this—this did not happen. This. Did. Not. Happen.

Communication on these recent changes, including road and sidewalk closures, was all after the fact. My city councillor had not been advised. I live in the area; I received no flyer, and I don’t know anyone who did. The @CrosstownTO Twitter account has no mention of these changes anywhere in the previous month. The first reference I saw was in reply to me on July 4. The Metrolinx street team was in front of the subway station with info cards more than a week after that.

Let me put it another way: I am an urban geographer, I take the TTC every day, and I write a transit column. I’m interested in this stuff. I think reading academic research on the impact of gas taxes on transit in South Korea is fun. If you can’t get my attention with your transit info, then your public outreach isn’t good.

And please don’t tell me to seek it out. A good communication strategy on your part does not add to workload on my part.

There are still “opportunities for growth” in the existing communication. That same map, for example, clearly shows that two roads running south from Eglinton have no pedestrian access. But there is no red bar through the stretch of Eglinton between them. Having studied the map, I assumed I could walk along there, but in fact, that part is also closed to pedestrians. The map could still be clearer.

But I know Metrolinx is listening. I complained that the map I was given by the street team didn’t indicate how long the changes were for, and more recent versions have added that information. Thank you.

I must say, however: I’m still worried about Metrolinx’s communication strategies. As my editor, Andrea Houston, brought to my attention, Metrolinx is rolling out a new brand. They are going to spend $250,000 so that we know what it does.

I’m sorry, but: what? It’s a government agency. The quotes in the Star article treat it like a transit corporation. First of all, it isn’t. Second of all, so what? Why does the average Toronto resident need to know what Metrolinx does? So they know where to send the thank-you note?

Frankly, one of the problems is that no one can decide with any clarity or permanence what Metrolinx is or what it should do. What was once an arm’s length planning exercise for the Toronto region, is now a collage of scraps of transit-related stuff from around the province.

With this new brand campaign, Metrolinx appears to be barreling ahead as if it’s Toronto’s equivalent to Transport for London—despite the fact that the Toronto’s main transit service, the TTC, is outside its remit. Sorry, but the transit brand we want to sell in Toronto is the TTC. Full stop.

There is no value to Toronto commuters in knowing that Metrolinx built the Crosstown. Put red LRT cars on it and make sure everyone understands it’s part of the TTC.

Outside of Toronto, the brand they need to know is GO Transit. And they do. We do not need to replace that with Metrolinx.

Focusing on branding to be competitive against other modes of travel only makes sense if you have deluded yourself into thinking that the way to get people riding transit is to redesign the logo of the company that builds the line. Or even the one that runs the line. Sure, marketing isn’t a complete waste of money—it can contribute to a positive, professional image of safe, reliable transit. That’s the kind of thing that’s important after some bad publicity, like a crash.

You know what works even better than branding for creating a positive, professional image of safe, reliable transit? Providing safe, reliable transit.

When it comes to improving ridership and rider loyalty, the research doesn’t put branding high on the list of priorities.

What works? Frequent, reliable service. Stations that are accessible in every way, including street presence. Affordable fares, with serious incentives for regular riders.

It seems to me Metrolinx could spend its time more productively by ceaselessly reminding the department of transportation of the urgency of improving Toronto’s regional infrastructure—y’know, its original mandate.

Metrolinx, you’re making an effort. That’s a good thing. But it still needs work. As far as your public outreach goes, my recommendation is that you put less time and energy into a cool new logo, and more into studying other cities’ communication strategies.

It’s probably only fair to note that the biggest problem isn’t Metrolinx itself. At the heart of this mess is a provincial government playing politics with transit and trying to improve its own “brand” in superficial ways. It isn’t focused as much on the substance of community relations, nor is it interested in such banal responsibilities as properly funding the TTC.

So you have my sympathies, Metrolinx. But you still need to step up.

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