LA Story

Los Angeles is about to spend $30 billion upgrading its public transport system. Michael Lejeune’s team has to persuade LA’s car-loving citizens to use it

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There is an enduring urban myth about Los Angeles – it even formed part of the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Starting from the 1930s, in what became known as The Great American Streetcar Scandal, an unholy alliance of Big Oil, the auto industry and other interests are supposed to have bought up the city’s thriving street car companies only to close them down and usher in the age of the automobile.

Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, that idea has largely been debunked – all across the US (and, indeed, the UK), cities were already swapping trams for buses, passenger numbers were declining and people just preferred their cars anyway. But no matter how it came about, LA is now the capital of car culture.

There is an alternative to the perpetually clogged freeways, though. LA has buses, light rail and even its own subway system. For years they have languished, underfunded and underused. But public transport in LA is about to get a huge shot in the arm, as the city turns away from road building and funds a massively extended public transport network. And it’s the job of Michael Lejeune and team to persuade Angelenos out of their cars and onto the new system.

the challenge  Lejeune is creative director of the Creative Services team, the 30 person in-house communications department responsible for everything put out by LA Metro, the city’s public transport provider. His department works as an internal agency, picking up briefs from within the body relating to everything from putting together funding documents to the livery of the vehicles themselves.

When Lejeune joined in 2003 as LA Metro’s first creative director, the organisation was facing some significant problems. Previous attempts to extend the LA subway system had been so mired in controversy that the city had passed a law specifically banning the use of public funds for similar projects in future. In a survey, only half of citizens thought LA Metro was using their tax dollars wisely.

Lejeune and his deputy, Neil Sadler, who had come in from Landor, set about changing the way that Metro talked to its existing customers in the hope that, eventually, it might attract new ones. In classic design consultancy style, they began by tidying and simplifying. Just two typefaces were to be used in all communications – DIN for maps and information and Scala for ads and everything else. There was also a new logo – the old one, an M set in a box, was recognisable but not ownable. In fact, LA had received a cease and desist letter from the Washington public transport authority claiming that its logo was too similar to theirs. In order to maintain recognition, the M was retained but restyled and reversed out of a black circle.

Next, the team looked at LA’s bus fleet. “Neil found out we have a paint shop,” Lejeune says. “When buses come in for repair, they paint them – but they don’t have to be white.” A new colour-coded system was introduced which not only made it easier for passengers to distinguish between, say, local and express services, but which also made the buses much more visible. All of which had to be done within the budgetary constraints typical of a public organisation. “When a business rebrands, they hire a consultancy and paint everything all at once,” Lejeune says. “We had to be budget-neutral so we have to wait until a bus comes in for repair to repaint it – seven years on, there are still buses out there that haven’t come in yet.”

With the basics tackled, Lejeune began looking at every aspect of the Metro’s communications. Photography students from Cal State Long Beach were brought in to create an image bank. The Metro’s print shop bought a six-colour press to produce new timetables, maps and other material.
“After a year, we did a big telephone survey to see what people thought,” Lejeune says, “and the number of people who thought that Metro was providing a quality service went up to 82%  – we did nothing to the service.” The perception of an improved service, Lejeune was able to argue internally, was in part due to the improvements in the way that the Metro was talking to its customers.

“If you think the service is improving, you might try it,” Lejeune says, which led to ad campaigns targeted at discretionary riders who have a choice over what form of transport to use. Real change, however, will only come when the system itself is improved.

Today, LA’s system is a mixture of, buses, light rail/tram-like overground trains and a very limited underground that runs through the city centre. Its coverage is very patchy and there are long distances between stations. But this is about to change.

Sick of seeing the state of California raid its coffers to offset its own financial problems, LA decided to try to take control of its own destiny by introducing an increase in the local sales tax that would generate revenue exclusively to be used on public transport. Known as Measure R, it was added to the November 2008 Presidential ballot, guaranteeing a high, young turnout. Measure R was duly passed, giving the city over $30 billion to spend on new lines and extensions to existing ones over the next 30 years. That timescale may now be cut to just ten years if the city can secure a federal loan against promised tax revenue to come.

Which all means a huge amount of work for Lejeune and his team. “This is going to be the largest public works project that the city has seen in half a century,” he says. “We have to develop a new visual system to represent all this.” With the advent of construction work on some 23 projects, Lejeune’s team is busy creating graphics that can be used to dress building sites and explain what the new lines will look like. Key to this will be gaining public support for what will be a very disruptive exercise. “Every single person in LA is a customer – either we want them to vote, or ride, or come to a meeting and agree that a subway station is going to be built under their 10 million dollar home – the challenges are never-ending.”

The biggest challenge of all will be in tackling the pre-eminence of the car. “We can’t slam people for driving: this is LA,” Lejeune says. “But what you can rail against is the cost. Traffic is our enemy, not the car.” To this end, Metro has been running a series of graphic ads contrasting the two – one portrays petrol as ‘dumb’ and the Metro card as ‘smart’.

Lejeune accepts, of course, that Metro is never going to persuade all LA drivers to take the train or bus, but Metro’s target is far more modest. If it can persuade just 5% to make the switch, he says, it will make a huge difference, both to traffic speeds and pollution levels. Even such a modest change will be a huge challenge. For many, one of the most significant landmarks in the journey from new immigrant to US citizen is getting a drivers’ licence and buying your first car. You take the bus (or the subway) only as long as you have to – in a city where a two-hour commute is not unusual, owning a car is still the big aspiration. Somehow, Lejeune and his team at Metro have to take that mindset on. 

“Our stance,” he says, “is to treat Metro like a retail product. But it’s like trying to sell a deodorant to people who think they smell just fine.”