"Who needs a car in L.A.?" says Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as he hops onto a 1947 Pacific Electric streetcar. "We got the best public-transportation system in the world!" For Valiant's L.A., that was true; the Pacific Electric once maintained an efficient electric railway with more than 1,000 miles of track. But public transit here is about to enter another golden age. A focus on design has created a smart new system gorgeous enough to wean even the most addicted driver off the high-test.
The change began in 2002, when the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority consolidated its ambitious public-art program and its in-house design studio into one creative-services department, attracting top design talent from local firms. At their urging, the MTA was nicknamed Metro, and a countywide campaign began to shift public perception. One of the first tasks was to rebrand the buses, and when the fleet began to roll out in eye-popping California Poppy, Rapid Red, and Business Blue, awareness skyrocketed. The kicker: These weren't even new buses, just better decals and a good coat of paint.
According to Matt Raymond, chief communications officer, that kind of heightened visibility began to win over riders. "In our public surveys, 73% of those responding are more aware that Metro's service is available to them," he says. "These are key numbers, because even without opening up new markets, our service is now perceived as more far-reaching." And the real proof of design's juju: 83% of riders say the service is improving even though it hasn't really changed.
Now working closely with manufacturers, Metro has pushed for the same extreme customization at all consumer touch points, creating a shiny new identity completely unique to Los Angeles. Metro's creative director, Michael Lejeune, says the transformation was necessary, but not just to get Angelenos out of their BMWs. "Our goal is to employ design to attract discretionary riders—those who have a choice—by giving Metro a distinct style," he says. "At the same time, we're giving those who are transit-dependent—those who don't have a choice—a system they can be proud of."
Riding a wave of eco-awareness and exceptionally bad congestion on L.A. streets, Metro's facelift seems impeccably timed. The Orange Line, a dedicated bus route that was the first to be built from the bottom up using Metro's new design standards, celebrated its one-year anniversary with triple the expected boardings and plans to extend the service. Ground has been broken for the light-rail Expo Line, which will head west and, eventually, to the Pacific. Even Beverly Hills, traditionally a stronghold of opposition to public transit, looks poised to endorse a rail route through city limits.
Although transplants to the city may bemoan its still nascent system, playing catch-up has its advantages. Whereas other public-transit systems have had to retrofit century-old design in an effort to keep up, Metro can innovate for today's riders—and learn from other cities' mistakes. In fact, this past October, Metro was named Outstanding Public Transportation System by the American Public Transportation Association.
Even more impressive are surveys that seem to prove design's direct effect in winning over the public: "Eighty-six percent of those surveyed say that Metro's image is improving," Lejeune says. "And when people see our work, the likelihood that they will try Metro doubles. Ridership has grown at more than twice the national average." Those are pretty good numbers for a city that lives behind the wheel. So take that, Valiant—L.A.'s public transportation is a joke no more!
Alissa Walker is a freelance writer and editor of the design blog UnBeige (www.unbeige.com). She lives in Hollywood.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.