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BMW Group DesignworksUSA exterior design concept for BART's Fleet of the Future. (BMW)
BMW Group DesignworksUSA exterior design concept for BART's Fleet of the Future. (BMW)

The Green Highway

Riding the rails with BMW Add to ...

I had an interesting conversation with a man from BMW. He had the blue-and-white roundel on his card but his title said Senior Consultant, Public Transportation. He explained that his job is to work with transit agencies to “lift the quality of the product they’re providing.” I asked how that could help BMW sell more cars.

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“You just jump straight to the heart of it,” said Adrian Corry, the man with the title. “BMW’s business is about mobility in the broader sense and clearly there’s a relationship when it comes to urbanization issues. Think 20 years ahead and what are the changes we’re going to see in public sector mass transit? There will be stronger partnerships with the private sector. We can already see that happening.”

Corry is employed by DesignworksUSA, which is BMW’s 100 per cent-owned California design studio. Headquartered in Los Angeles, Designworks does about 60 per cent of its business for the parent company and the rest for third parties mostly in the transportation field including Boeing, Airbus and Siemens along with transit agencies like BART (San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit). “We can’t really touch another automobile brand,” explained Corry.

I pressed on. “The more attractive you make public transit then the less requirement people will have to purchase automobiles. Isn’t there an inherent conflict there?”

Corry replied, “My personal view is that individual mobility is here to stay but it will change its clothes over time. We really do have such a lot of understanding and know-how around the mobility business that we should put it into the public sector.”

BMW is flying high. It’s a small company in automotive terms but extremely profitable. It does things differently. It bought Designworks in the 1990s and has always run it as a profit centre, encouraging it to work for clients beyond BMW.

Corry’s specialty is industrial design on rail networks ranging from the London Underground to Spain’s NAFA, the high-speed line between Madrid and Seville. A big project now is BART’s Fleet of the Future. The system has been running the same rail cars since 1972 and the whole lot is being replaced rather than trying to refurbish. It’s a $3-billion program.

What’s Designworks’ role? “Basically we’re on the side of the customer. The suppliers are on the side of their technology. They all have their own agendas so we have to push back and represent the client and the passenger. Agencies like BART want to improve the premium-ness of their product. They understand their customers and want to bring them in.”

There’s a good reason why transit agencies should think that way. It’s called the fare box.

There is no doubt that there are people in Toronto who should use public transit but avoid it because the experience is often so awful. BART tries to make it “more pleasurable,” says Corry. “They’re concerned about the emotional space of their service and lifting the whole quality of their offering.” And isn’t that what “premium” products are all about?

“In the Bay Area, if you look at the parking lots around the extensions of the BART system you’ll see Priuses, a few Chevy Volts, but also Mercedes and BMWs, Ferraris and Porsches,” said Corry. “These guys are parking their cars and then they’re getting on BART. So they trading their premium seat for another kind of seat.”

Maybe I can’t afford a BMW but it would be nice to get some BMW-like “premium-ness” riding the Red Rocket.

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