New research highlights the benefits of two-way communication for transit agencies

By Bill Holloway

Transit agencies use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate with stakeholders, but they may be missing out on some of the biggest potential advantages of these platforms by using them primarily for one-way communications—service announcements, press releases, etc. Agencies that engage in a dialogue with stakeholders by responding directly to transit-related questions, concerns, and comments can both improve their image and potentially leverage their relationship with patrons to improve the management of their systems.

A recent study, by Lisa Schweitzer, in the Journal of the American Planning Association found that transit agencies that engage in two-way communication with stakeholders on Twitter, rather than just sending out announcements, receive more positive statements about their services on Twitter and increase participation in their feeds from businesses and news media. There are also fewer tweets directing racial and sexist slurs at transit patrons when transit agencies regularly use Twitter for two-way communication. Even agencies that tweet interactively only a few times a day appear to have a more civil discourse than those that use Twitter exclusively for one-way communications.

However, engaging stakeholders in social media dialogue can do more than just burnish transit agency reputations. In a report published last year by the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, Sarah Kaufman makes the case that through co-monitoring—the use of public observations in combination with staff reports and analysis—transit agencies can reduce the time and costs associated with information gathering, improve their responsiveness, and build working partnerships with their stakeholders. While agencies often use traditional data-gathering means such as rider surveys or staff reports to collect information about transit service quality, these methods fall short in two primary ways: they do not give riders the ability to identify issues in real time and they do not allow for follow up questions.

Kaufman proposes a framework for a transit agency co-monitoring system based on active sources like emails, text messages, and social media, as well as passive sources such as mobile phone location data. Using sentiment analysis tools, relevant social media posts can be identified and forwarded to the appropriate personnel. This type of real-time information would facilitate the prompt resolution of issues and could be used for long-term analysis as well to identify times when transit station garbage cans tend to overflow, drivers who regularly receive complaints, and other trends.

Twitter became popular because of the interactions it enables, not just because people like their information in 140 characters or less. Crafting communications strategies that play to the unique strengths of new social media platforms can boost public opinion and generate new efficiencies in performance monitoring. Transit agencies whose social media strategies are limited to blasting out service announcements and press releases are missing the point.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.