L.A. Designer: Michael Lejeune, Making Metro “Cool”

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The joy of of zipping across the open Southland in a beloved automobile was long part of the LA lifestyle and identity.


The joy of mobility — of zipping across the open Southland in a beloved automobile — was long part of the LA gestalt. The architecture critic Reyner Banham even wrote, back in the 1970s, “the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement. Mobility outweighs monumentality there to a unique degree.” 

But in recent years that feeling of freedom on wheels has gone, and been replaced by a sense of being trapped in the gridlock borne of the popularity of LA’s mobile lifestyle.

So now the region is going back to the future and reinstating a network of commuter trains, local light rail and buses; and biking is on the increase. But however essential these modes of transit are, can they exert the same ineffable sense of sizzle as riding in a cool car on the open freeway?

Michael Lejeune is out to prove they can. He will be one of the speakers participating in  Reinventing The Wheel, KCRW’s public event about the future of mobility taking place May 18 at the Helms Bakery District. 

Lejeune is Creative Director at Metro, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that serves as transportation planner, coordinator, designer, builder and operator for the County of Los Angeles. Metro distributes federal, state dollars and local dollars for projects ranging from rapid buses and repurposing a street with bike lanes to building a new train line and stations.

So what does a Creative Director for such a behemoth do? 

DnA talked to him and found out that his greatest challenge is making public transit “cool.” Listen to the interview above, and read it below.

Michael Lejeune_photo_highMichael Lejeune: I help lead a group of around 20 creative group of around 20 people that includes graphic, interactive and environmental designers.

Our task is to create all things visual for Metro, from signs to t-shirts to a web site to a mobile app to a full-blown advertising campaign to what color is the bus or train? We have redesigned every single aspect of the customer experience, and we also communicate with people who don’t think of themselves as customers. Our audience is every single person who lives or works or plays in LA County. You may never ride a bus or train but you are still our audience. I was the perfect litmus test when I took this job as I hadn’t been on a bus since high school.

DnA: Are you a designer by training?

ML: I’m not a classically trained designer. I’ve worked in entertainment and design and health care and transportation, but the common thread is really about writing and idea generation. I’m probably the worst designer in the group but if there is one thing I can claim for a personal contribution to creative work, it’s the voice. This was the challenge at Metro when I joined the company: we didn’t have a clear voice. Which is tricky when much of your audience doesn’t want to hear about public transportation.

DnA: What do you mean by that?

ML: So at my interview for the job 12 years ago I asked what is the goal for Metro and they said, Metro is not on anybody’s radar, or if it is, it’s a negative story in the local press. Our goal is really simple, we need to make Metro cool.

Now Metro is reinventing itself. We are into bikes and sponsoring cicLAvia and helping to bring Bikeshare to LA; we’ve opened up to really fulfill our destiny about being all mobility, buses and highways and bikes and walking.

But our philosophy has been that you can’t make Metro cool if you can’t get Metro to be noticed. We thought, we are not going to simply show a photo of a bus or train, but rather present a more colorful version of getting around LA that’s focused on people and possibility.

DnA: Give us some examples of how you’re trying to market Metro as cool? 

ML: One of the first ads that we shot was of a wildly costumed lucha libre wrestler standing on the train going to work. That honored the fact that many of our riders were of Hispanic descent but also that characters like him use the subway on a very mundane morning going to work.

Then we created an ad that showed an octogenarian women’s bowling team using the carpool lane and loving it.

We also had an ad that showed a gas meter that’s now on empty, simply paired with a Metro logo; our message was that Metro is the hero and traffic is the villain.

The public is made up of a lot of people, and one of the things about mass transit is that it’s for everyone. And we know that negative perceptions of the transit experience are out there. But our idea has been to show Metro as cool, a smart choice and a fun experience. And we do this without being preachy. No ‘shoulds.’

The way we think about this is, if we are a business who are our competitors? The competitor is the idea of driving alone. But you can’t take on that big thing done by 70 percent of Angelenos and say, you are stupid to drive alone. You have to point out the limitations of driving alone.


DnA: Can you elaborate on those limitations?

ML: Fifty years ago, driving alone was the ideal. In the 1950s you could live in Riverside with a 3-bedroom house and work in downtown and the commute was an enjoyable part of the experience. What we felt we could do is point out the positives of public transportation or poke fun at the downside. We shot one ad of a guy in car and he was covered in cobwebs, to indicate he’d been sitting in traffic for so long.

This is a very tough media market; every car company shoots their ad here and those messages still hold a lot of sway. In those ads you are never going to see anyone sitting in traffic in a brand new BMW. But we show that feeling of getting more done on public transportation or the joy of riding your bike.

DnA: Does your department design the trains?

ML: We don’t design the actual trains; those are made by huge companies in Japan or Central Europe. But we are buying the best equipment you can buy and we are constantly upgrading, like the buses with the accordion feel or the retro-feel silver trains on the Gold Line.

We also determine colors. Metro is more appealing if you can see yourself getting on bright candy-colored bus. And we want trains that have really nice interiors; we want to change out every little no-no sign so riding the bus or subway is a custom experience for Los Angeles.

Then, after making improvements you add riders and then you start to add more service because you add more riders and then you get more funding. Some parts of government want transportation, by the way, because it solves a lot of problems with congested cities.

Metro_rapid redDnA: What about the buildings?

ML: Metro is in charge of our new stations; we engage firms during the planning and design process. When we are talking about 80 or 100 stations we really have to look at that program and say, every single one can’t be custom (as some critics argue) and you need to build them in the same way. If you look at those underground stations in DC, that’s a system.

DnA: The DC subway system is stunning and grand. Metro’s stations seem more modest. Do you have that level of ambition for our stations?

ML: I think there’s ambition; I know a lot of people haven’t seen it yet because the new stations haven’t been built. Also, underground (as in DC) you don’t have to displace property but we have a limited amount of underground property. Take the Expo Line Stations, those are still relatively small footprints set in urban situations. It is very important to figure out how to build good, efficient stations in a tight situation.

Now we are working with Johnson Fain architects on a master idea for stations; they won’t all be the same but there will be connecting features, and that translates into concepts we give to another architectural and construction firm that will build the stations on our new rail lines, such as the Crenshaw Corridor line or the Regional Connector.

I should add there is a yin to my yang. The yin is make metro cool, the yang is that transit is hard. It’s about marrying funding and safety and design and political will into a workable solution. LA’s system is very young but we are imposing it on a very built up environment, and we have to win community approval at every step.

The greatest gift that Metro has is that traffic just gets worse. We are of course trying to make it better. But LA is still a great place to live. We are a source of new ideas and where trends are born. So there will always be people coming in and our job is to manage the growth.

There used to be people saying we don’t need rail. The nice thing on a macro level now in LA is we are past that point; voters have voted with their pocket books that they want transportation alternatives.

But we can’t rest on our laurels; we still have more highway projects going than bus or rail. We need to plan, develop and build for every kind of mobility: buses, trains, smart highway use, walking, biking.


DnA: So how do you persuade people to try public transit?

ML: We talk about savings which are very real; if you commute by train instead of car you will save thousands of dollars per year. But we understand the train sometimes takes longer than by car, or it doesn’t go near enough to someone’s home.

There will be people who will say, please, am I going to ride a train 5 days a week! But we are trying to get people to the point of trial. But if we can get them to try it once then our message is working. We encourage companies to buy employees a Metro pass as a way of fulfilling their rideshare programs.

DnA: What about people who still prefer to drive alone?

ML: To the person in their Lexus who will always want to drive we talk to them in a different way. We had carpool lanes that not enough people were using so we got a grant to try congestion pricing. We picked two freeways, the 10 and the 110, and we did a trial for a year and it’s been a success. Now I think Metro will go back to the legislature and ask for the blessing to do it on all freeways.

What we do is take these dry policies and we turn them into simple ideas and that’s what the express lane concept was about. It was about, don’t miss the moment, don’t sit there stuck in traffic and miss your daughter’s performance at school, don’t be stuck in traffic.

Metro_bike day_tail ad

Images courtesy of Metro. ©2014 LACMTA; this post has been updated since initial publication.