Many people now rely on social media for news and other important information. Technological advances in cell phones and other mobile devices have given the general public far greater access to current events through multiple sources such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and other online resources. One major advantage of this new technology is that it “pushes” content directly to users without them have to search the internet for themselves. It also lets providers share information at any time and to correct any erroneous postings immediately. Transit agencies can take advantage of this to communicate directly with their customers, particularly in emergency situations. Under normal conditions, mobile apps can help with travel planning, listing arrival and departure times, delays, and alternate routes, even before a traveler reaches a station where electronic message boards may be located. Such remote communications can also be useful in alerting transit users to service problems as well as planned or unexpected changes or disruptions in service. In addition, pictures can be transmitted showing the condition of stations and facilities that support decisions to reduce or shut down service. A recent study following Hurricane Sandy in New York found that social media had advantages to transit providers over traditional media, including two way communications. Local agencies, including the MTA, NJT and PATH all increased their tweets during the emergency. Some used the service to answer questions and collect information directly from users. They also provided real time information on station closings and re-openings following the storm. Another advantage of social media is that is can reach a wide audience by making information available to others, including traditional media outlets, that can rebroadcast critical information. A big plus for transit agencies is the fact that millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) who are increasingly using public transit are also heavy users of social media . The study’s authors suggest that transit agencies begin adopting policies regarding their use of social media including when the need to post important information quickly may outweigh accuracy or completeness.
Raymond Chan and Joseph L. Schofer, “Role of Social Media in Communicating Transit Disruptions,” Transportation Research Record No. 2415, 2014, pp. 145-151. A study of 86 international transit providers found Twitter to be the most commonly used form of social media, at 86%, followed by Facebook, at 33%. Agency credibility may depend on the accuracy and timeliness of the information provided to consumers. Due to rising expectations among users of social media, many will expect to be provided with information about incidents as soon as they occur. Failure to keep “ahead of the pack” as one transit provider put it could hurt an agency’s image with the public. But this may require a substantial commitment of agency staff resources and other support. Another cited advantage of social media was the two-way nature of communication allowing agencies to respond to consumer questions and to send and obtain real-time information about conditions on the system, as well as customer opinions. Again this requires staff resources to monitor and timely respond to messages or risk consumer dissatisfaction. This information may be quite useful though in future agency planning which could save staff time in the long term. Social media can be particularly useful for high-frequency transit modes where operators may need to communicate with a large number of commuters in a short amount of time, to for instance, advise them of travel delays or unplanned route changes. However, the agency must also weigh the desire to keep the public informed with the need to provide accurate information. One agency concern noted by researchers was that information may remain on sites like Facebook that is inaccurate or has become outdated and that such information can also be rebroadcast over services like Twitter. As such, some agencies reported using such sites only for notifying users that the operator is aware at situation exists and that they should consult agency websites for more detailed and up to date messages. One advantage of social media was the ability to reach passengers who are not yet on the system, who may still be able to change plans and take alternative transportation, particularly around rush hours, thus cutting down on the need to provide alternatives such as replacement buses in cases where such services are provided. As one agency put it, social media allowed them to “’evaporate’ its market.” (p. 123)
Brendan Pender, Graham Currie, Alexa Delbosc, and Nirajan Shiwakoti, “International Study of Current and Potential Social Media Applications in Unplanned Passenger Rail Disruptions,” Transportation Research Record No. 2419, 2014, pp. 118-127. Social media can also be used in long range transit planning. Traditional methods of public involvement in planning and environmental review processes may not be able to reach a large number of people due to the time and inconvenience some interested parties may face in attending public hearings. Social media offers the opportunity to create conversations outside of a physical space as well as engaging a wider number of people. It can be used to disseminate information through pictures, charts, narrated videos, and other innovative means to describe the project and the planning and environmental review process. Public reaction can be gathered through on line polls, posted comments, and blog postings. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles made used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to engage the public in its Westside Subway Expansion project. This and other cases studies are reviewed in a recent TRB report. There are however, some possible barriers to using social media, including that some individuals may not have access to it or may use it infrequently due to factors such as age, income, or lack of education. In addition, some persons’ use may be limited the result of a physical disability. Some ethnic groups may be more or less likely to use different types of social media. Agencies considering using social media to complement more traditional approaches should consider how best to overcome some of these limitations, including consulting with local community leaders regarding preferred methods of communication . To date there has been limited research on how to measure the effectiveness of social media communications as a tool of public involvement and some confusion how to document and respond to information collected through social media as part of environmental review.
Stephanie Camay, Lloyd Brown, and Meghan Makoid, “Role of Social Media in Environmental Review Process of National Environmental Policy Act,” Transportation Research Record No. 2307, 2012, pp. 99-107.
- This paper presents several case studies of the use of social media in the environmental review process and offers suggestions for how to more effectively use social media to inform and engage the public. It also calls for future research to measure the success of using social media in public engagement.
Raymond Chan and Joseph L. Schofer, “Role of Social Media in Communicating Transit Disruptions,” Transportation Research Record No. 2415, 2014, pp. 145-151.
- This report discusses how public transit agencies can enhance communication with customers through social media, particularly during major service disruptions, through a case study of the responses of transit agencies in the New York region to Hurricane Sandy and Winter Storm Nemo. It concludes that social media sites, particularly Twitter, give agencies more control over content and timing compared with conventional communications channels, and identifies directions for future research.
Brendan Pender, Graham Currie, Alexa Delbosc, and Nirajan Shiwakoti, “International Study of Current and Potential Social Media Applications in Unplanned Passenger Rail Disruptions,” Transportation Research Record No. 2419, 2014, pp. 118-127.
- This paper reports on a study of the use of social media in 86 international transit agencies for managing unplanned passenger rail disruptions. The study develops a conceptual model for assessing the impact of social media on transit disruptions and discusses future research and practice opportunities.
Transit Cooperative Research Program, "Uses of Social Media in Public Transportation," 2012.