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A Better Idea for Branding Public Transit

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An Atlantic Cities blog posed a question that consistently bedevils environmentalists: "How do we break Americans' love for the automobile?" A love enhanced by auto makers who have used design and advertising to reinforce the link between sex and cars.

The blog was inspired by a new book, Making Transit Fun! How to Entice Motorists from Their Cars (and onto Their Feet, a Bike, or Bus), in which designer Darrin Nordahl proposes that we apply "the power positive emotion wields over a person's choice" to transit, just as has been done with cars. Nordahl believes that good design and branding will make this change happen. He gives concrete examples such as the gorgeous new terminal building planned for San Francisco and the names and logos developed for bus routes in Boulder -- names like Hop, Skip, Jump, Bound, Bolt, Dash, and Stampede. These are fun names that give personality to the experience.

And planners point out that the new generation is rejecting car ownership anyway in favor of renting through businesses like Zipcar or car sharing services. This younger cohort is primed for a message that will make transit more attractive and remove any lingering stigma that the older car-addicts have applied to transit.

But I would argue that transit's sensory experience will never come close to driving's magical sense of power, freedom, control, -- and yes, sex. It's often the first experience of its kind that a young adult encounters. And names that bring to mind speed, like "Bolt," won't work either until transit really is reliably faster than taking a car, as it can be in New York.

So if a car's experience is so fundamentally different than riding transit, what parallel experience can we plumb for joyous attributes?

I would propose we look for a model to long-distance trains and their sense of possibility and romance, not the raw sex of cars. Throughout the last century, trains have been rich sources for stories of adventure and romance. The tight space generates dramatic tension that has special appeal for filmmakers. From Brief Encounter to North by Northwest to last year's The Tourist, where Angelina Jolie seduces Johnny Depp on a train, trains have been the stuff of dreams.

My chance encounters on trains have never been quite that romantic or fraught with peril, but they've been memorable nonetheless.

To some degree, the New York subway shares the dream of immediate and risk-free contact that long-distance trains enjoy. But given the unromantic image of buses and subways, contact between passengers is generally acceptable only in a crisis. Several years ago when I was riding the Broadway local uptown, the train broke down just north of the West 125th Street stop. I struck up a conversation with a Honduran woman, expressing my admiration for her ability to keep cool despite the summer heat and humidity. Over the course of our conversation, she told me about her autistic child. Our intimacy was immediate and intense, if not romantic.

And yes I've experienced joy. On that same line but closer to 42nd Street, a Motown singing group interspersed their songs with such irreverent humor that we all cheered as we put our dollars in the hat. As the lead singer exited the train, he caught my eye and said, mimicking an actor's angst, "But what's my motivation?"

Building modern transit stations that match the glory of Grand Central is a wonderful idea. I just hope their creators include a recognition of the adventure that comes from sharing a compact space with strangers and the romantic possibilities. And who knows, someday lovers might boast about their tender meeting on a city bus. Makes a better story than meeting online.