Many people now rely on social media for news and other important information. Technological advances in smartphones 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 quickly correct any erroneous postings.
A majority of American transit riders now use smartphones and research suggests that percentage will continue increasing, allowing many more riders to access real-time transit information (RTI). 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. 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%.
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. That information can in turn become available to others, including traditional media outlets, who can then rebroadcast critical information to even more people. One particular advantage is 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 spokesperson put it, social media allowed it to “’evaporate’ its market” when an emergency struck.
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. Another is the two-way nature of communication allowing agencies to respond to consumer questions and to send and obtain RTI about conditions on the system, as well as customer opinions. This may require additional staff resources to monitor and timely respond to messages or risk consumer dissatisfaction, but this information may also be quite useful in future agency planning which could save staff time in the long run.
Social media can influence riders' positive perceptions of transit. A 2012 survey of riders in St. Louis, Missouri, showed a shift away from phone-based services or printed schedules for bus information and trip planning toward Internet and mobile-based methods. The study looked at specific devices used by bus and rail riders and found that over 75% of both had Internet access and text messaging on their phones. Bus riders who used smartphones were significantly more satisfied with their ability to make transfer connections and those with text-messaging were more satisfied with the agency’s communication of service changes or disruptions and with their personal security at transit stations.
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 insist on being 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. Again this may require a substantial commitment of agency staff resources and other support. 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 is that information may remain on sites like Facebook that is inaccurate or has become outdated and that such erroneous information can also be rebroadcast over services like Twitter. As such, some agencies reported using such sites only for notifying users that the operator was aware of a situation and that they should consult official agency websites for more detailed and up to date messages.
Another issue is that access to mobile communication technology can vary among different demographic groups. Transit providers may need to consider supplementary technology to reach those persons. The St. Louis study found that those over 40, retired, unemployed or homemakers, and bus riders earning less than $20,000 were least likely to own a smartphone; for those the best alternative could be cell phones that can use interactive voice response (IVR). Text-messaging was also available to a significant number, but accessing bus or rail information through this method requires knowing the station ID number, which may require improvements to signage at some stops. Computer based websites would be available to most of those without either a smartphone or cell phone and can provide more information but would be of less use to those already en route.
A recent study following Hurricane Sandy in New York found that social media had advantages to transit providers over traditional media under emergency conditions. For instance, pictures could be transmitted showing the condition of stations and facilities that support decisions to reduce or shut down service. Local agencies, including the MTA, NJT and PATH all increased their tweets during the crisis. 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. 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 concerns over accuracy or completeness.
Public Involvement in Planning
Social media can also be used in long range transit planning. 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.
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. That information can be rebroadcast by recipients ("retweets" or "RT") to an even larger segment of the public. In addition, public reaction can be gathered through on line polls, posted comments, and blog postings. Web-based surveys can be a valuable method to quickly collect detailed information from a large sample of passengers at low cost, though one study found some challenges in reaching elderly and disabled users who were less likely to have email addresses. The same study reports on possible bias in web-based research design including the representativeness of the samples, and the possibility that the information provided may not reflect respondents’ typical behavior.
There are also possible barriers to using social media for planning purposes, including that some individuals may not have access to it or may use it infrequently due to factors such as age, income, lack of education, or physical disability. Some ethnic groups may also be more or less likely to use different types of social media. Agencies considering using social media to complement more traditional planning approaches should consider how best to address 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 the environmental review process. A study of the experimental use of social media as part of the City of Austin's Strategic Mobility Plan looked at its ability to involve citizens in the planning process, provide citizens with a voice in decision making, and promote a sense of community among those interested in transportation. Careful analysis found that information from microblogs could be aggregated in a meaningful way for planners but that future research would be needed to streamline the process. While studies have shown that social media users tend to be diverse, there are issues whether they are representative of the general public. The authors advise that those considering use of social media in planning should "engage public officials and other key stakeholders early in the public involvement planning process (p. 97)."
- Raymond Chan and Joseph L. Schofer, “Role of Social Media in Communicating Transit Disruptions,” Transportation Research Record No. 2415, 2014, pp. 145-151.
- Sarah Windmiller, Todd Hennessy, and Kari Edison Watkins, "Accessibility of Communication Technology and the Rider Experience: Case Study of Saint Louis, Missouri, Metro," Transportation Research Record No. 2415, 1014, pp. 118-126.
- 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.
- Pender, et al., supra, p. 123.
- 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.
- Jennifer S. Evans_Crowley and Greg Griffin, "Microparticipation with Social Media for Community Engagement in Transportation Planning," Transportation Research Record No. 2307, 2012, pp. 90-98.
- Cecilia Viggiano, Haris N. Koutsopoulos, and John Attanucci, "User Behavior in Multiroute Bus Corridors: Analysis by a Web-Based Survey," Transportation Research Record No. 2418, 2014, pp. 92-99.
Sarah Windmiller, Todd Hennessy, and Kari Edison Watkins, "Accessibility of Communication Technology and the Rider Experience: Case Study of Saint Louis, Missouri, Metro," Transportation Research Record No. 2415, 1014, pp. 118-126.
- This study of Saint Louis, Missouri, Metro riders examined how their use of communication technology affected their transit use and rider experience. In addition, it identified specific demographic groups that would benefit from supplemental technology methods more conducive to their particular information needs. Those using smartphones or text messaging reported significantly higher levels of satisfaction with service, while those (including riders older than 40 years of age) who were less likely to own smartphones might be better served through websites and interactive voice response services. It concludes with a call for RTI application development that mirrors the unique characteristics of transit ridership.
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, 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.
- This report explores the use of social media among transit agencies and documents successful practices in the United States and Canada. It includes results from a survey of selected transit providers using social media.
Jennifer S. Evans_Crowley and Greg Griffin, "Microparticipation with Social Media for Community Engagement in Transportation Planning," Transportation Research Record No. 2307, 2012, pp. 90-98.
- This study examined technical, analytical, and communication challenges to using social media for public engagement and participation in transportation planning through a study of the City of Austin's Social Networking and Planning Project (SNAPP). The study used various analytic methods to determine sentiment, extent of engagement, and impact on the decision-making process from this microparticipation effort.
Cecilia Viggiano, Haris N. Koutsopoulos, and John Attanucci, "User Behavior in Multiroute Bus Corridors: Analysis by a Web-Based Survey," Transportation Research Record No. 2418, 2014, pp. 92-99.
- This paper reports on a web-based survey used to collect information on users of a multiroute bus corridor in London both as a tool to understand behavior and as a demonstration case for the viability of web-based surveys, a relatively new methodology for data collection on public transport user behavior. The authors find that online surveys can collect detailed information from a large, fairly representative sample of bus passengers and that route choices depended on several factors.
Douglass, J., Dissanayake, D., Coifman, B., Chen, W., & Ali, F. (2018). "Measuring the Effectiveness of a Transit Agency’s Social Media Engagement with Travelers." Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2672(50), 46–55.
- The study employs a cross-tabulation to examine the relationship between Tyne and Wear (UK) Metro system travelers’ age, travel purpose, and level of social media usage. The central argument is that social media is an effective way of disseminating information to transit riders prior to their trip.