Radio ads will begin pitching the RTD's "free-sample" bus ride program today, a five-month, high-stakes gamble that officials hope will pull up sagging ridership and provide a badly needed increase in fare-box revenue.
In one of the largest such promotional programs ever attempted, RTD officials plan to distribute more than 1.3 million free bus tokens in minority communities where the RTD sees the most potential for attracting new, regular riders. Studies show that 80% of the RTD's riders are minorities, up from 43% just seven years ago.
For one week beginning next Tuesday, 500,000 metal tokens, each valued at the 85-cent base fare, will be available through most Boys Markets, which already sell RTD monthly passes and have stores serving minority areas of the county. Shoppers making a minimum $5 purchase will be eligible to receive two of the tokens.
The tokens may be used to pay the regular fare or in combination toward higher freeway express fares.
Later phases of the program will involve paper punch-out tokens that will be inserted in selected newspapers, including black and Spanish-language dailies, as well as weeklies on the east side of the county. Other convenience markets and fast-food chains may also participate in additional token distributions between now and June.
"We're saying, 'Here it is. Sample the bus. It's not going to cost you anything," said Anthony Fortuno, RTD's marketing director. "We want people who have never ridden on the bus. . . . Our objective is not just to get someone to sample (the RTD), but to get them to use us on a regular basis."
The free-sample ride promotion is the Southern California Rapid Transit District's first direct action to reverse a more than 15% slip in ridership since 1985 that has cost several million dollars a year in lost income. Much of the RTD's current-year budget deficit of $8 million is tied to patronage losses, which have been blamed on, among other things, low gas prices, problems in maintaining reliable service and reduced public confidence after nearly two years of allegations focusing on problem drivers and poor management.
Fortuno predicted that the free-sample program will result in a net gain of several thousand new riders a day and generate millions in additional income.
"Sampling has been a proven technique in motivating people to use consumer goods and services," he said.
But he also has acknowledged that the district could lose as much as $440,000 in fare revenue--not counting more than $300,000 in advertising costs--should existing cash riders use the free tokens, with no gain in new regular riders.
Other cities, such as San Francisco and Atlanta, have successfully used sample rides to boost ridership. But officials with those systems said their promotions have been limited to residents near new train stations or to encouraging families to use the buses and trains on weekends.
The RTD board has endorsed the program as a necessary, calculated gamble. But some members have strong misgivings, and one, Nikolas Patsaouras, has predicted that the program will be a financial disaster.
Some transit experts are suspicious of such promotions because, they say, they do not change the price of gasoline and other major economic forces that are driving down bus ridership nationwide. Other observers, including some RTD board members, say more regular riders will be attracted to the RTD only when buses are cleaner and more punctual and drivers are friendlier.
In that regard, Fortuno said, employees have been advised of the importance of the free-ride program to the district's financial health, and a concerted effort will be made "to put the best possible service on the streets," he said.
The metal tokens, which bear the image of Los Angeles pioneer developer and streetcar operator Henry Huntington, have been in limited circulation since 1982. But hundreds of thousands are being brought out of storage for the new program.
Because the tokens are being targeted at heavily minority areas, not all Boys markets will participate in the free-ride program, Fortuno said. Those stores not chosen to participate are in Marina del Rey, El Segundo, Torrance, Long Beach, Lawndale, Norwalk and Santa Ana.