More filming on public transportation could boost bottom lines for local governments

By Jenna Fortunati

Public transportation gets a bad rap even though it’s an important - and normal - part of many Americans’ lives.

In 2016, Pew reported that 21 percent of urban residents in the Northeast use transit every day. The American Public Transportation Association notes that Americans board transit 35 million times every single workday.

These aren’t small numbers. And as more people are moving to cities - the UN’s oft-cited prediction is that by 2030, one in three people will live in cities with a population of at least 500,000 - our culture should reflect both our reality and our aspirations.

On the flip side, cars get a lot of air time (and auto companies are the masters at brainwashing us to show how great life will be after we make that expensive purchase). Although everyone loves a good chase scene, most of the time when cars appear in TV and movies, they’re just another setting rather than the plot. Life happens in cars. Cars are not only normalized, but they look good.

Why is this? Product placement.

Product placement is no laughing matter, and, again, car manufacturers are deft masters. Not only is it an easy way for studios and networks to earn some extra dough (ABC struck big deals with Buick and Ford for coverage in Black-ish and Designated Survivor, respectively), but carmakers often help pay for production costs. Mercedes-Benz recreated Fashion Week for the Sex in the City movie in exchange for a few shots of characters using their cars. Some companies even give free cars to studios for production use.

And if a car company is sponsoring a production, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the characters stuck in traffic or filling the tank with gas.

But transit agencies can fight back. Although transit agencies, with their limited and depleting budgets, can’t offer the sweet perks to studios that car manufacturers can, they can lower the barrier of entry to filmmakers.

They can grant permits faster. They can allow small crews to film during rush hour. They can actively encourage student and low-budget productions to film in their facilities and make it easier for them, too - something that the Chicago Transit Authority is proud of doing. This is especially important given that many low-budget web series are being picked up by large networks.

Who knows - maybe cities can even increase tax incentives for productions that highlight their transit system.

And good news: there is demand to film on transit. New York City transit accommodated 13 filmmakers in just the first week of February, according to a source at Metropolitan Transit Authority. Most of these are TV shows. Also,the film project coordinator at Chicago Transit Authority told me that in 2017, they received 210 requests and executed 152. (And to have a little fun, our team at Mobility Lab created The Ultimate TV and Movie Public Transportation Database.)

Entertainment is a powerful influencer and can change attitudes about public transportation. Characters riding public transportation makes transit another setting - a place where life happens. Seeing it on screen makes it easier to envision it in your life.

If government can tap into the demand to film on transit, maybe more people will be encouraged to ride public transportation.


Jenna Fortunati is the research communications intern at Mobility Lab, a transportation demand management firm. She is a senior undergraduate in American University’s School of Public Affairs. Her email is



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