Internet communications

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A statue titled "The Internet Messenger" by Buky Schwartz in Holon, photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher

Introduction

The internet is an increasingly important point of communication with regular and potential passengers. An agency website that is current, clear, and user-friendly can convey information about the transit system that makes the system easier to understand and navigate. Web sites and internet communications that are not clear to users or contain incorrect information could frustrate passengers and reduce trial by potential passengers.

Over the past few years, internet communications have expanded from one-way communication through agency Web sites to dynamic, interactive communication through internet-based applications and social media like Facebook and Twitter. This interactive communication is often referred to as social media or ‘Web 2.0.’ Social media is also commonly used as a quick method for receiving and responding to feedback from passengers.

Additionally, cell phones with internet access, or smartphones, have proliferated in recent years. These devices allow passengers to access the internet while they are mobile, and can be an important means of delivering real-time information to passengers.

Benefits

Web 2.0 technologies allow transit agencies to communicate directly with their audiences, rather than going through an intermediary, such as a news outlet, which was necessary in the past. Technologies that enable direct communication between agencies and users also encourage citizen participation and help agencies to be more transparent.<ref name="web">Federal Highway Administration. U.S. Department of Transportation. “Current Uses of Web 2.0 Applications in Transportation.” 2010.</ref> Because websites can house large documents and links to other sites, this allows agencies to provide highly detailed information to stakeholders. This is another proactive way to encourage public involvement and to encourage people to learn more about projects on which agencies are seeking comments.

Internet-based applications like Nextbus can alert customers to delayed vehicles, reducing unexpected wait time and perceptions of unreliability. Twitter and Facebook have also been used by transportation agencies to alert users to emergencies or other unexpected situations. These applications and communications with passengers improve reliability and enhance the overall experience of using transit. Employing Web 2.0 technologies can also improve the image of the agency as modern and user-friendly.

Costs

Technology changes quickly and there is upfront staff time and investment required to ensure that applications remain compatible with users’ platforms and software, as well as making sure that websites are user-friendly and have a modern appearance. As one report by FHWA points out, it is most cost-effective to use existing applications, rather than to develop new ones. Timely responses to public comments can also demand substantial staff time, so it is important for agencies to have a standard protocol for responding to questions and complaints that both meets public expectations and the agency’s goals. In fact, in one survey, agencies reported that staff time was the greatest cost to employing social media in its communications.<ref>Transit Cooperative Research Program. “TCRP Synthesis 99: Uses of Social Media in Public Transportation.” 2012.</ref> Developing appropriate measures can also require substantial time and energy. Some agencies use easily quantified statistics, such as re-tweets or Facebook comments, to measure performance, but these are somewhat blunt measures of effectiveness.<ref name="web" />

Equity Concerns

While social media and Web 2.0 tools can improve communication between agencies and transit users, it is also important to maintain some traditional methods of communication. Op-eds, in-person presentations, and clear wayfinding are all necessary tools for communicating with passengers. Newer technologies should complement traditional communications tools rather than replace them.

Transit agencies also must recognize that there remains a digital divide between people of different incomes and ages - or differential rates of access to and use of internet-based technologies. <ref>National Telecommunications and Information Administration. U.S. Department of Commerce. “Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America.” 1995.</ref> Agencies must strike a balance between using resources to improve their more advanced technology communication and serving passengers who may not have access to or an understanding of those technologies. By keeping in mind the needs and tools available to different audiences, transit agencies will be successful in providing clear information to all passengers.

References

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Additional Reading

Transit Cooperative Research Program. “TCRP Synthesis 99: Uses of Social Media in Public Transportation.” 2012.

This recent report, sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, describes the wide variety of uses for social media in the provision of public transit. It includes lessons learned, policies for managing social media, common challenges and benefits, and case studies of several transit agencies using social media, with one example from California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

Transit Cooperative Research Program. "TCRP Synthesis 43: Effective Use of Transit Websites." 2003.

Though now somewhat outdated, this synthesis report contains key considerations about website development and content that any transit agency might face. Though technology has progressed in the past decade, many transit agencies continue to face issues in displaying large amounts of data in graphics or text tables. This report contains guidance on the formatting and display of transit information.

Federal Highway Administration. U.S. Department of Transportation. “Current Uses of Web 2.0 Applications in Transportation.” 2010.

This recent report from FHWA focuses on interactive web applications, or Web 2.0, and examines how they are being used by transportation agencies. The report describes the wide array of Web 2.0 tools and their uses, including social media, blogging services, and media-sharing sites. This report also offers case studies of several state Departments of Transportation.

Transportation Research Board. “Keeping up with Communication Technology: An Online Workshop on the Practical Use of Social Media.” 2011.

This online resource, which was sponsored by the Transportation Research Board’s Communications Coordinators Council and the Committee on Public Involvement in Transportation, offers powerpoint and video presentations from experts in using social media to engage community members. The presentations include case studies and some very in-depth examples of success in using web-based technology for transit and regional planning. Presentations include using Facebook ads to boost interest in an agency, using social media to improve transparency, and other best practices.