Editor's note: In this five-part series, Government Technology examines the present impact of technology on transit systems and what that can mean for the future of urban transportation.
Traditionally, connecting with riders hasn’t been a top priority for transit agencies. To find out what riders thought of transit service, agencies used periodic surveys to gauge performance, interest in new transit projects and to monitor conditions.
But thanks to social media, agencies now have an opportunity to connect with their customers, putting a personal face on what appears to be a faceless bureaucracy. Social media tools and platforms — ranging from Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to Instagram photo sharing, YouTube’s media sharing and Foursquare’s location platform — have created new avenues through which agencies can engage riders.
Social Media: Still a Work in Progress
In 2012, the Transportation Research Board surveyed transit agencies about their social media practices. The results were published in the report Uses of Social Media in Public Transportation. The research identified best practices as well as barriers and concerns about using social media in transit. It also identified gaps in knowledge about social media that needed further study. They included:
Social media policy. Although industry experts believe having a social media policy is critical, only one in four transit properties participating in the survey had such guidance in place. More research could identify elements of a social media policy that are relevant to public transit agencies.
Social media metrics. Most of the surveyed agencies measured the effectiveness of their social media activities by using built-in metrics, such as counting “friends” or followers, and by using a third-party application such as Google Analytics. While these metrics can give a good overview of activity, they don’t provide the information agencies may need to better understand the effectiveness of their social media activities. Additional research could provide transit agencies with the tools for estimating the costs and benefits of social media, perhaps by including sample metrics or performance indicators drawn from other industries.
Internet security. Industry experts consistently emphasized the vulnerability of social media applications to security threats, including viruses and malware. Additional research could help determine whether social platforms leave transit agencies especially vulnerable to cyberthreats and, if so, recommend appropriate actions.
Access for people with disabilities. Though federal agencies are required to conform to Section 508 accessibility guidelines for their Web applications, some analysts argue that these rules don’t apply to government use of privately owned social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Additional research could help organizations identify features to improve the accessibility of social media sites and contribute to the debate about how federal accessibility rules apply to social media.
Multicultural issues. The characteristics of social media users are not yet well documented and questions remain about whether social media platforms can bridge the digital divide, or the perceived gap between people who have access to information technology and those who do not. While not conclusive, research suggests that social media attract users from multiple demographic categories. Further research could provide more data on the demographics of social media users and help determine whether public transportation agencies must take additional actions to ensure that all riders can access online information and social networking sites.
Integration with other agency activities. Despite the growth in mobile applications and traveler and citizen information services, only a few responding agencies reported integrating social media with these programs. Additional research could quantify the potential for better coordinating social media with other platforms for providing agency information.
Revenue potential. Industry experts anticipate growth in several areas, including location-based technology and social-buying services. Additional research could help identify revenue opportunities associated with these applications.
According to a 2012 report issued by the Transportation Research Board, the reasons transit agencies use social media fall into five broad categories: timely updates, public information, citizen engagement, employee recognition and entertainment.
While there’s no definitive list of transit agencies using social media, a 2014 survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials of 46 state DOTs found that 98 percent use Twitter, making it the most popular transit-oriented platform; more than three out of four have adopted social media policies; and about 44 percent of DOTs had staff dedicated to social media.
Similarly, local transit agencies have embraced social media, and the numbers show it. New Jersey Transit has more than 70,000 Twitter followers and another 46,000 likes on Facebook. Hot topics include customer relations, service alerts and arrival times. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit has more than 80,000 followers on Twitter and receives 200 to 300 messages daily. Its social media staff monitor the messages — a train car is too hot, smells funny — and will pass along messages to crews if action is needed.
But they also create content for riders, such as a video on “the crowded car survival guide” or information about new features, like a recent replacement of seat and carpeting for its fleet of subway cars. The department aggregates messages from riders that deal with bigger topics and they get elevated to proper management, according to Melissa Gordon, a communications representative with the agency. “We are the canary in the coal mine,” she said.
Keeping management informed about serious issues that bubble up through social media chatter is important. It’s also possible that data from social media can be of strategic value to transit agencies that strive to be more customer-focused. Social media can act as a monitoring tool that can help transit agencies improve how their systems run and even increase trust between passengers and agencies.
“Transit providers can use aggregate mobile phone data and social media posts to improve system management,” writes Sarah Kaufman, a digital manager with New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation and author of the report Co-Monitoring for Transit Management.
Kaufman recommends transit agencies develop a “co-monitoring” system that combines staff reports, data analysis and social media to create an improved feedback process, speed up awareness about transit conditions, reduce the cost of infrastructure monitoring, empower riders and improve customer relations.
But elevating social media from an interactive communications tool to a strategic asset that can make transit agencies more nimble, service-oriented and able to perform better overall, isn’t without some pitfalls. Those drawbacks range from legal concerns over records retention to a lack of resources to train staff on using social tools in more sophisticated ways. Then there’s the issue of dealing with the digital divide between passengers who use social media all the time and others who aren’t digital at all. Also, social media, with its anonymous participation, has been shown to invite excessively critical posts.