Vancouver's transit system needs a face

How do we get people to love a transit system? Find out why penguins and bears are so important for buses and trains, and how we can get TransLink to stop sucking.

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When you see that friendly penguin, you know right away that you can use your Suica card at that shop, or for that service. If he’s holding up his mobile phone, then you know that you can use Suica Mobile.

Rhino on a skateboard: Love and danger

Down in Australia, Yarra Trams has given a face to its network, albeit almost by accident. Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world. In taking over the network, Yarra Trams went hard on its "<3 Your Trams" campaign; but also had to address a massive public-safety issue. With all these trams zipping round, Yarra Trams had to tell people to look out, lest they get pulverized by a mass-transit vehicle that weighs as much as... 30 rhinos. From this notion sprang Spike the Rhino.

He is the result of a public-awareness campaign by the Helsinki Agency, because you have to explicitly tell people not to get hit by a tram. Spike's name was the result of public input.

Melburnians love the rhino; I love the rhino, and I also really like the rhino as a unit of mass-transit mass.

The face of the place

The notion of giving a face to a place has been explored in Japan during the last 12 years or so, as a means of promoting local events and boosting civic pride. Yuru-kyara (ゆるキャラ, “gentle characters”) are the mascots representing cities across Japan.

Since cities being broke as f&ck is a worldwide phenomenon, there isn’t any money available to spend on cartoon characters when you have potholes to fill. Therefore yuru-kyara are usually created through public competitions.

For example, you might know this guy.

Kumamon (くまモン) is the mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture. He was created to bring tourists to Kumamoto after a new bullet-train line opened in 2010.

Kumamon is by far the most popular of the yuru-kyara. Dude’s gone A-list. He is still technically a public employee, but Kumamon also  has his own toy line; he’s on Twitter; he’s in vending machines; he’s on TV; he’s performed with Weezer; and he’s even in my bathroom. This bear has banked well over $200 million in merchandizing revenue.

Kumamoto’s locals can point to that ursine bureaucrat with a blush of pride and say, “He’s literally my homeboy!”

Nobody seems to mind that bears are not native to Kumamoto.

The hairy face of Vancouver

One of the most successful aspects of the 2010 Olympic experience were Vancouver’s sporting mascots, Sumi, Quatchi, Miga, and MukMuk; created by Meomi Design. For everything that went wrong with the Winter Games (the Olympic Village fiasco, the purgatorial queues for that zipline, the fact that Gastown's businesses were made invisible to all those tourists; Hell, the weather), we absolutely nailed the mascots.

Why isn’t Quatchi the year-round mascot for Vancouver? If we want to boost civic pride, we could start with something as basic as giving our transit system a face. TransLink missed the boat on BearFare, but it can still win over a still-bemused public.

Then we can move forward, putting a face to a city whose identity has long been fractured.

Yeah. Let's talk about bringing Quatchi back for a full-time gig. If a tattooed, hockey-playing Sasquatch doesn't make the cut, that's okay, too: we still have all those adorable rabbits. We can figure it out. We can turn something faceless into a friend.

[This article is adapted from 'My Penguin Friend: The Faces of Cities and Systems', a presentation by Jordan Yerman for ProductYVR; an ongoing series of lectures around the products that make our lives better or worse.]

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