Why Is CTA Enabling a Transit-Shaming Campaign to Lure Millennials to Wisconsin?

When will this nightmare end? A still from the ad campaign's anti-CTA video. Image: Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation
When will this nightmare end? A still from the ad campaign's anti-CTA video. Image: Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation

The CTA is a good public transportation system, at least by U.S. standards. But sometimes it seems like the transit agency should go into therapy to get to the root of its self-loathing issues.

Witness the recent ads for Lyft on Chicago bus shelters reading “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” implying that you’re foolish for riding the bus when a (polluting, congestion-causing, transit-cannibalizing) ride-hailing car could get you there faster. Or the placards that were displayed on the side of CTA buses a few years ago advertising a Wi-Fi network that said something to the effect of “Unlike this bus, which is slow because it makes so many stops, our service is fast.”

Granted, the CTA should speed up its bus service by reducing the typical number of stops per mile from eight to four and other timesaving strategies like dedicated lanes, transit-friendly stoplights, and prepaid boarding. But in the interest of raising ad revenue the CTA has sold space to advertisers who ridicule its service, which is counterproductive to raising fare box revenue.

Now the transit agency is enabling a new $1 million marketing campaign from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation that takes CTA-shaming to the next level by portraying an ‘L’ commute as a soul-crushing waste of time. As reported by the Chicago Tribune’s Robert Channick this morning, the corporation, a public-private agency created in 2011 by transit-hating Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, is trying to convince Chicago millennials to move across the Cheddar Curtain. The ad blitz promises young people a better quality of life in the Badger State due to it lower housing prices, natural beauty, and wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities.

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An ad from the campaign. Image: Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation

That’s all fair game, but the campaign’s attacks on the CTA go below the belt. A video spot shows zombie-like young people looking depressed and yawning on a drearily lit ‘L’ car. “An hour commute or an hour with friends? In Wisconsin the average commute is less than 22 minutes,” says the voiceover. The spot then cuts to images of happy millennials paddle boarding on a river in Milwaukee, drinking beer on a terrace above Madison’s Lake Monona, mountain biking through the woods, and kayaking. “So you’ll have more time to do the things you love. Wisconsin. It’s more you.”

One display ad states that Chicago has the longest commute times in the country and asks Chicagoans if they’d rather be “waiting for a train or waiting for kabobs” at a barbecue. Another one shows glum-looking straphangers juxtaposed with people playing beach volleyball, asking “Bump elbows or bump on the court?” The message is clear: Public transportation is a drag, and you can avoid it if you move north of the border.

Bike Federation of Wisconsin director Dave Schlabowske confirmed that, unfortunately, it generally is so easy to drive in Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, where he lives, that just about everybody who can afford to commute by car does so. “Parking is often free in Milwaukee, and also easy to find. People downtown will literally drive four-to-six blocks to go to a meeting or for lunch rather than walk.” Obviously that’s not a good thing for air quality or public health.

Another anti-CTA display ad from the campaign. Image: Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation
Another anti-CTA display ad from the campaign. Image: Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation

But while the average Chicago commute may be longer than a typical drive to work in Wisconsin, a recent study found that Windy City commutes are less stressful than those in other cities thanks to our relatively robust CTA and Metra networks. In contrast, Wisconsin has no rapid transit, and Governor Walker seems intent on making sure it stays that way.

Personally, I’d much rather relax on a train while listening to music, reading a book, or catching up on emails than deal with a stressful, potentially dangerous car commute. And then there’s Chicago’s Divvy bike-share system, which offers a fun, healthy public transportation option with 6,000 bikes. That’s almost twice the cycles-to-residents ratio as Milwaukee’s Bublr network, which has only 750 bikes.

The really perplexing thing is that the CTA is being complicit in this Chicago-bashing media campaign by posting the ads on 15 Brown Line cars, starting this week. The Tribune notes that this train route, which runs between Albany Park and the Loop through mostly affluent, majority-white North Side communities, is one of the few ‘L’ lines that doesn’t serve the South or West Sides.

Chicago Transit Authority, why are you collaborating with an ad campaign that suggests that, as would-be O’Hare Express builder Elon Musk has said, public transportation “sucks”? While Chicagoans like to complain about transit service, in general we are very glad that your extensive network of buses and trains exists. We love you CTA, but you need to learn to love yourself.

Update 1/12 1:15 PM: CTA spokesman Jon Kaplan provided the statement below about CTA ad policy, including the statement that the WEDC ads “do not disparage CTA or transit, but instead promote Wisconsin.” While it’s obvious from the images and text above that this ad campaign does, in fact disparage the CTA and transit in general, it may be the case that the particular ads displayed on the Brown Line don’t mention or portray the CTA but instead focus on other issues, such as housing affordability. So far the CTA hasn’t responded to my requests for the images that are being displayed on its trains. I’d appreciate it if any Brown Line riders could snap photos of these and share them with us via social media or email: jgreenfield[at]streetsblog.org. Thanks.

Update 1/12 4:15 PM: Thanks to this photo tweeted by Streetsblog Chicago reader Aaron Meyer, we have confirmation that the CTA is running WEDC ads that disparage transit within the ‘L’ system, even though the CTA isn’t required by law to do so.

Photo: Aaron Meyer
Photo: Aaron Meyer

Statement from CTA spokesman Jon Kaplan regarding ad policy

“The purpose of advertising on CTA trains, buses, rail stations, bus stops or other CTA property is to generate revenue to benefit the transit system and help keep our fares low.  We ensure that ads are always to be done in a manner that preserves the safety and comfort of CTA customers.

Acceptance of advertisement does not constitute CTA’s endorsement of any product or service.

CTA’s advertising guidelines accept three types of ads: Commercial/promotional; government ads; and public service announcements from government or 501c3 non-profits that relate to health, welfare or education.

We have well-defined guidelines that prohibit ads for products, services or activities that are illegal, as well as ads that are untruthful, misleading, disparaging, degrading or ridicule people based on race, color, sex, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, marital or paternal status, military discharge status or source of income. We also prohibit political and public issue advertisements and mature content (including the depiction of nudity or sexual content).

If ads meet our guidelines, we accept them.

In the case of this particular advertisement, these ads do not disparage CTA or transit, but instead promote Wisconsin.

In 2013, CTA’s ad policy was amended to more clearly define the type of advertising that CTA will accept. Here is a link to the CTA’s advertising guidelines on our website.”

  • planetshwoop

    So Milwaukee is getting a streetcar to go from the casino to the beach, so it’s not too transit hating…

  • CIAC

    You do understand that the CTA is a government entity and thus can’t engage in viewpoint discrimination, right? If it allows advertising, it has to allow whatever advertising people are willing to pay for. There may be some exceptions for such things as nudity, but that’s it. They don’t have a choice but to run these ads. It’s not their choice. You may like commuting on transit more than car. So do I. But a lot of people don’t. Those who have an interest in persuading commuters of the advantages of commuting by car in Wisconsin have a right to make their case. And chill out. A lot of people will not agree with that case. Chicago has a lot of problems right now. But one of them is not the ability to attract employers to transit friendly neighborhoods of the city. You can bet that the vast majority of people who have opinions about this are not going to be swayed one way or the other by some ads touting the advantages or disadvantages of commuting by car vs. transit. It would have been something they’ve already thought about significant’y. You are acting as if this campaign is some sort of huge threat that might somehow convince a significant amount of people of something they hadn’t thought about before and that the government should rush to protect people from hearing this case being made. That’s ridiculous.

    And what on God’s green earth does the race of the majority of people who use the Brown Line have to do with anything about your concerns? I don’t understand that point at all.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Milwaukee isn’t transit-hating, Scott Walker is. He (with help from the Koch brothers) did everything he could to kill that project. https://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/05/09/has-scott-walker-finally-found-a-way-to-kill-the-milwaukee-streetcar/

    Note that the streetcar won’t be rapid transit, since it will operate in mixed traffic.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Ah, the original IAC again with your inimitable commenting style — don’t ever change.

    You may have a point about the first amendment issue. For example, the CTA opted to accept an anti-Muslim ad in 2012 on the grounds that there was a legal precedent that protected the ad: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-11-15/news/chi-jihad-ads-on-cta-buses-cause-controversy-20121114_1_american-freedom-defense-initiative-defeat-jihad-pamela-geller

    It’s possible that a transit agency may be allowed to turn down an ad that specifically tells people not to use its service, although these ads, which merely imply that the CTA is awful, probably wouldn’t meet that standard. I’ll look into the issue.

    As I wrote, the Tribune originally brought up the subject of the Brown Line’s geography and the fact that adds aren’t being run on South or West Side trains. While it’s not the main point of this post, I think it’s an interesting point that bears repeating — the WEDC is encouraging North Side CTA riders, but not South or West Side commuters, to move to Wisconsin.

  • Tooscrapps

    He’s definitely in the pocket of the road builders. If Madison/Milwaukee HSR could have been made with asphalt, he would have been on board.

  • Tooscrapps

    I think the fact they are advertising on Brown/Purple is a red herring. Age, income, and education are the demographics they are targeting. And while the latter two are inextricably linked to race, advertisers put their money where it’ll have the most influence. It’s no different than say Rolex advertising in the Gold Coast vs West Pullman.

    It’s clear that Brown and Purple lines serve a young, educated, and relatively wealthy population for the *entirety* of their routes. While the Red and Blue serve similar demographics, they only do for half their lengths. Thought, I would argue that the sheer number of riders on Red/Blue would outweigh any “dead” time on the South and West sides.

    I’d be interested to know what the cost differences for ad buys are on the different lines. Do Blue and Red cost more because they run 24 hours and have higher ridership? Is Brown more costly than Green because the demo is more “valuable”? Has anyone asked the CTA this?

  • CIAC

    Every ad campaign will only target the demographics where the campaign can be the most effective. This campaign is aimed at young professionals with white collar jobs who might be interested in moving to Wisconsin and taking white collar jobs there. The people who would be most likely to be receptive to the message are north siders rather than south or west siders, with the exception of the areas nearest to the loop on the south and west sides. It’s very simple and is based on common sense and really is not interesting at all. They’d be incompetent if they spent good money to target demographics that aren’t what they are looking for. It’s not interesting at all. And it certainly has nothing to do with race. It is mostly about age, family status (such as single vs. married and/or whether they have children), white collar vs. blue collar, and other things of that nature. If Wisconsin did target (or even just included significantly) south side and west siders in an ad campaign such as this, of course, we’d hear complaints from people about how the powers-that-be want to rid the city of people of color.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Because the CTA needs money. If the state of Illinois is not going to give them money they’ll take it what the state of Wisconsin is offering.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Actually, it looks like the CTA does have the ability to turn down ads disparaging its service, which might apply to the Wisconsin ads. See this passage on prohibited advertising content. Thanks to @bingaman for pointing this out. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/956f929e06cef53176cb618a0408431f33e515be01cbf2b4c4aa4f2f663bd8df.png

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The CTA’s revenue strategy includes promoting an ad campaign that discourages people from purchasing CTA rides?

  • Jason

    The efficacy of these ads doesn’t add up to me. If the target market of those who might move to Wisconsin (presumably Milwaukee or Madison) is young people, most young people are living within a radius in which their public transportation commute time is 30 minutes or less.

    I don’t have evidence to prove this next point, but a significant number of my peers LIKE the fact they don’t have to own a car due to the access of public transportation. Most people I know can borrow a parent’s car, or just rent, rather than paying the minimum $1,000 annually for the pleasure of owning a car in insurance, plates and city stickers, let alone any other costs.

    The beach volleyball ad makes me giggle. We definitely don’t have beach volleyball courts in Chicago!

  • undercover epicurean

    They should put Scott Walker & Paul Ryan’s smug faces in the ads too, millennials love those guys!

  • FlamingoFresh

    I’m not saying it’s the smartest idea but that is what they’re currently doing.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The transit ads are only running on the Brown Line. The trip from Kimball at the end of the line to Washington/Wells is only 34 minutes. Most Brown Line riders have a shorter commute.

  • Tooscrapps

    There are a lot of ways a simple Brown Line commute can be far greater than 30 minutes. Throw in walking time, dwell time at stations or connections, and unexpected delays and 45-55 minutes door to door isn’t unreasonable.

    However, a crash on a exit ramp can cause just as much as a delay for any driver.

  • Obesa Adipose

    Next ad campaign – free cheese when you cross over the border! Get a grip, it’s money in the bank for the CTA and people aren’t that stupid.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Funny, the CTA is one of the few things that assures I will never move to a smaller US city.

  • BorderLine Guy

    Government spending money horribly in the advertising realm? Shocking.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I think John and others have a point that the decision seems….odd….by CTA. I also think the targeting of these specific ads is suspect af too. But the more I think about the entire issue, I keep coming back to basically this conclusion, haha.

    Like…who’s REALLY going to fall for these ads? I’d argue they were probably on their way out already.

  • kastigar

    There was a former rail line between Milwaukee and Madison but it was abandoned because nobody rode it.

    It turned into a nice bike trail – the Glacial-Drumlin train that runs almost the full way between Milwaukee and Madison.

  • rohmen

    I get the outrage given the implication that mass transit is somehow bad, but having grown up in Wisconsin, I kinda view this as simply another chapter in advertising campaigns that rip the respective boarder state. The State of Illinois has run ad campaigns in the past that rip on aspects of Wisconsin culture for sure as well.

    Also, no doubt there’s a pro-car element of the ad here (at least in spirit), but Madison has some pretty amazing greenways and off street commuting paths that let a lot of people I know up there commute year round by bicycle with a lot less worry and stress.

    While we’re pretty far in front of Madison on public transit, we’re pretty far behind it on bicycle infrastructure IMHO. And in terms of Milwaukee, I’d argue we’re at best slightly ahead in bicycle infrastructure.

  • Jeremy

    One 20-something employee being paid $70,000 in salary & benefits could probably drum up hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in advertising.

  • What will Wisconsin be doing to keep the byproducts from Foxconn out of my drinking water?

  • Jason

    You’re right, 30 minutes isn’t a hard or fast number, but I imagine the 22 minute drive advertised doesn’t really factor in all the time either. I used to work in Milwaukee, driving from Gurnee. Most commuters end up in either underground parking structures attached to the building they work in, or in my case, a lot. That’s all time to drive to the lot, walk to the pay machine, put the ticket in the car, walk to your building, etc.

    I’m not trying to prove anything, I guess, I just don’t think the ads are effective. I don’t think most people look at their CTA commutes as particularly miserable compared with alternatives.

  • AJ

    I don’t view these ads as transit-hating at all. I’ve lived car-free in both Milwaukee and Chicago and found riding MCTS to be every bit as convenient as CTA but with shorter commute times. It’s just a matter of scale.

  • Tooscrapps

    Yah, I agree. I’d take being slow on the train over being in traffic any day. But let’s not kid ourselves, commuting on the Brown Line during the rush is no Utopia. Especially for the some of the poor souls at Sedgewick and Armitage in the morning.

  • CIAC

    I’ve been on brown line trains that, just due to rush hour train traffic and perhaps slow zones, took 25 minutes just to get from the loop to Fullerton.
    That’s something like 4 miles and would take about five minutes when driving through a non-congested area. So the Wisconsin ads certainly have a point there. In addition, a lot of people who take the brown line also use other service as part of their commute. They’ll transfer to a bus or another rail line. Many people who take the brown line do have a significant commute.

  • CIAC

    Where does that passage come from? I assume from the CTA’s own rules. The first amendment supersedes that. Government entities are not allowed to engage in viewpoint discrimination : https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/forums

  • Tooscrapps

    Nothing. Environmental and wetland studies are waived!

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Off hand I don’t think the Foxconn site drains to Lake Michigan.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    On a related note I saw an ad in a bus shelter in Rolling Meadows advertising the Tollway, although I suppose those ads are aimed at people driving by, not waiting for the bus.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Correct, from the CTA’s own rules. Sounds like you need to file a class-action lawsuit!

  • CIAC

    “Thanks to this photo tweeted by Streetsblog Chicago reader Aaron Meyer, we have confirmation that the CTA is running WEDC ads that disparage transit within the ‘L’ system, even though the CTA isn’t required by law to do so.”

    OK. That is just utterly ridiculous. Appealing to the negatives of some type of activity in an advertising campaign in order to encourage people to think about alternatives does not constitute “disparaging’ that activity. At least it’s not my definition of disparaging. And neither is it dictionary.com’s definition of it: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/disparage Disparaging requires some sort of moral or status judgement about the activity one is disparaging. Bringing up drawbacks of something is not sufficient to constitute disparaging. If someone suggested that right now (or a few hours ago) would be a good time to purchase something at Dairy Queen or to hang out in a park for several hours I would point out that no, it really isn’t because there is currently a wind chill of about zero. Obviously, that doesn’t involve disparaging Dairy Queen or hanging out in parks because it doesn’t involve making a judgement about these things, both of which I enjoy. It is just pointing out the drawbacks of it in a particular context. And that’s all the advertising campaign for Wisconsin was doing. It’s ridiculous to get so defensive about it.

    And again, the CTA is likely required by law to run this advertisement. If it doesn’t, it would be engaging in viewpoint discrimination which the government isn’t allowed to do under the first amendment: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/forums

  • Carter O’Brien

    It’s funny you mention this, as I was just near Oz Park and stopped in the DQ on the corner – both were empty.

  • Dr. Ishmael

    Stop the bickering, move to Minnesota.

  • johnaustingreenfield
  • johnaustingreenfield

    The first definition of “disparage” that comes up in a Google search is “regard or represent as being of little worth.” It’s fair to say that the campaign, including the ad posted in the subway tunnel, represents commuting by transit to be something of little worth, which you would be wise to avoid by moving to Wisconsin.

  • CIAC

    I have no idea how to even comprehend what you are saying. Transportation, whether by bus, train, car, bike, or anything else, exists for a functional person. You engage in transportation in order to get from one place to another. I’m having a hard time understanding how matters of “worth” factor into the question of how one gets to work everyday. So I don’t see how this would relate at all to an advertising campaign that points out the alleged drawbacks of one method of transportation compared to another.

  • FlamingoFresh

    If he’s bringing in that kind of cash flow, he should be getting paid more.

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