Metra to Potential Customers: Come On and Take a Free Ride

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Metra staff with a mockup of the free ticket: CEO Alex Clifford to left of conductor; Chairman Brad O'Halloran to the right. Photo by John Greenfield.

People who ride Metra commuter rail regularly know that it’s a relatively comfortable and dignified transit experience. The cars are clean, you almost always get a seat, the ride is smooth and the trains usually arrive exactly when they’re supposed to. You can read, talk on the phone, use a laptop, snooze or even legally enjoy a beer during your trip. It certainly beats the heck out of driving across the Chicago region on many counts: safety, cost, reliability, stress reduction, environmental sustainability and more.

So why do so many folks in the Chicago region choose to drive between the city and the suburbs when they could take an efficient, relaxing rail commute instead? Metra brass thinks it’s because they don’t know what they’re missing, and they have an ingenious strategy to get new people to switch. The transit agency will be giving away two free tickets to any destination in the system to 500 people per week for fourteen weeks – a total of 14,000 tickets, good for the next 90 days. The recipients, who must be 18 or over, will be randomly chosen from those who register at MetraRail.com/TestDrive.

While there doesn’t seem to be any method for preventing current Metra riders from scoring free tickets, the hope is that the lion’s share of the winners will be newbies. To promote the giveaway to people who currently commute by car, the agency is spending roughly $390,000 on marketing, including billboards visible from expressways and radio spots in English and Spanish following traffic reports and gas price updates, as well as Internet advertising. The billboards emphasize the financial, time-saving and relaxation benefits of making the switch.

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Sample billboard design. Photo by John Greenfield.

From the contest website:

On the train, frustrating hours you once spent in traffic are replaced with relaxing time getting work done, answering e-mails, texting friends or reading. You also save an additional twelve hundred dollars a year that lost time and wasted gas used to cost you in traffic. Not to mention the costs of parking fees, tolls and wear and tear on your vehicle – and your quality of life.

This afternoon at a press conference under the undulating glass ceiling of Millennium Station, Metra leadership heralded the promotion as an innovative way to build ridership. “Metra is an integral part of the way Chicagoland moves and works,” said Chairman Brad O’Halloran. “But many of our riders move away or change jobs. Many people are new to the Chicago area and may not know about Metra. Others need to be reminded that Metra may be an option. In fact, we believe that if more people tried Metra they would become regular customers.”

CEO Alex Clifford noted that the recent urban mobility study by Texas A&M showed the average Chicago area resident wastes 51 hours per year in traffic. “The truth of the matter is, traveling by car in Chicago is a highly unpredictable experience,” he said. “Conversely, in 2012, Metra trains system wide were 96 percent on time.”

It remains to be seen just how many Chicagoland car commuters will take Metra up on their offer to exchange traffic jam hell for two tickets to transit paradise. But the agency should be applauded for trying a fresh approach to marketing commuter rail.