Singapore buses
SgTransport/Flickr

Will more people ride public transit if it smells nice?

It’s not often that you hear commuters talk about how much they enjoy the smells of the city bus. But this month in Singapore, taking a deep breath in through your nose might not be such a risky proposition for commuters. In fact, they might even pick up hints of rose and peppermint.

That’s the “signature scent” being deployed over the next month to entice people to use more public transit. The public bus operator Tower Transit will pump the new scent into 100 of its buses, following a months-long partnership with the local marketing company AllSense. In an interview with the BBC, scent expert Terry Jacobson describes the smell as having a “green note” that reflects the city’s biodiversity, mixed with a cool, refreshing aroma that soothes passengers in the city’s tropical climate. And while the smell is subtle, so passengers aren’t overwhelmed, Tower Transit hopes it’s strong enough to keep riders coming back—and more importantly, to lure people away from their cars.

The company may be among the first to use scents to try to alter commuting behavior, but the “smell-vertising” tactic has a powerful history. Much like how retail stores use smells to entice shoppers, my colleague John Metcalfe wrote in 2012 that marketers—particularly food companies—have “smell bombed” commuters. That year, a U.K.-based baked potato company installed ads that waft the aroma of “slow oven-baked jacket potatoes” at bus stops whenever you press a button. More aggressively, Dunkin’ Donuts in South Korea saw a 29 percent increase in sales in stores near bus stops after their ad team installed dispensers in public buses. Every time their jingle came on, riders were treated to—or bombarded with—a blast of coffee aroma.

Using this marketing ploy to convince people to ditch their cars is certainly ambitious. On the one hand, smells, as invisible as they are, can influence how a city functions. CityLab has reported on how smells alter how we use public spaces, reveal a city’s identity, and even go as far as reshaping an entire metropolis.

Those who have had a good whiff of the Transit Tower’s marketing ploy reported, for the most part, positive reactions. Most who spoke to the local news site The Straits Time and BBC welcomed the fact that it made the buses smell fresher and said it would make them want to take public transit. (A few also told BBC they didn’t exactly like the floral scent.) Can those feelings translate to action? Perhaps not so easily. As behavioral experts told CityLab, commuting is a habitual behavior, meaning it isn’t so much a conscious choice as it is a response to daily cues and, more notably, changes in major life events.

It’s no surprise that such a novel idea cropped up in Singapore, a living lab for urban sustainability and innovation. My colleague Mimi Kirk recently reported on the city-state’s new bus stop design, arguably one of the best in the world. It will soon start experimenting with contactless credit card payment on buses and trains, and has plans to fully service three of its bus lines with hybrid and electric buses. It’s even bringing on artificial intelligence, via a group of local researchers using machine learning to predict ridership across the city.

Technologically speaking, a fresh scent may not be as high-tech as those innovations. At the same time, Singapore has been on a mission to make cars less attractive, in part because of its commitment to urban sustainability and in part to ease any lingering tension between the wealthy car owners and those who feel “forced” to take crowded public transport.

So anything helps. Personally, I’d swap the smell of exhaust, body odor, and whatever’s clinging to the seats for a puff of roses and eucalyptus any day.

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