Social Media Recommendations for Public Transit Providers

Sarah M. Kaufman is a researcher and Assistant Adjunct Professor at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.

Social media networks give transportation providers access to large numbers of people simultaneously and without a fee. The NYU Rudin Center’s new report, “How Social Media Moves New York, Part 2,” based on earlier findings (see “Twitter’s Importance to Transportation,” October 2012) recommends social media policies for transportation providers seeking to inform, engage, and motivate their customers.

The goals of social media in transportation are to inform (alert riders of a situation), motivate (to opt for an alternate route), and engage (amplify the message to their friends and neighbors). Marketing messages are also essential to inform riders about new services, and to be compelling enough to retain the follower base that will help amplify important information. Our study of tweets by transportation providers throughout the New York region during the summer of 2012 showed a wide disparity in proportions of service information, engagement and marketing posts between different agencies:

Appropriate timing of messages alters the ideal proportions, and can vastly enhance a transportation provider’s follower base—e.g., providing essential delay information during rush hour—or turn customers off entirely—e.g., over-posting marketing messages during rush hour. Based on the research in this report, the following chart shows recommended proportions of social media posts:

More generally, to communicate effectively using social media, transportation providers’ online presence must be:

  • Accessible: Easily discovered through multiple channels and targeted information campaigns
  • Informative: Disseminating service information at rush hour and with longer-form discussions on blogs as needed
  • Engaging: Responding directly to customers, marketing new services, and building community
  • Responsive: Soliciting and internalizing feedback and self-evaluating in a continuous cycle

To the last point, a large portion of responsiveness is accountability. In our analysis, we found a major discrepancy in the use of “thanks” and “sorry” in the Twitter feeds of private transportation providers (specifically, American Airlines and JetBlue) versus public agencies. Specifically, the airlines apologized far more than public transportation providers for delays and cancellations: in the two months studied, American Airlines wrote “sorry” and its synonyms 3,949 times; PATH, 62 times; Metro-North, 39 times; NJ Transit, 25 times; and the others, three or fewer times. Similarly, while customer engagement dominated both airlines’ Twitter accounts (85% on average), demonstrating their need to be constantly responsive to and direct with customers, public transportation providers communicated less directly with their customers (34%). These patterns indicate a universal orientation toward customer service throughout the private companies, which must earn and maintain customer loyalty. However, public transportation providers, which often have a monopoly on customers, likely do not feel the same need to focus on them.

In contrast, the public transportation providers accepted ‘thanks’ at a greater rate than they issued apologies (on average 17.7 “thanks” versus 12.6 “sorry”). This pattern was most pronounced in NYC Transit’s feed, which posted 26 “thanks” and variants, but only 3 “sorry” and variants, and NJ Transit, which posted 73 thanks and 25 apologies. See the chart below for all Sorry/Thanks comparisons. This diversion may result from the typically thankless work of transit management, making compliments especially meaningful.

Instances of “Sorry” and “Thanks” in Tweets

Accountability, like accurate information and direct engagement, is essential in building trust between transportation agencies and their customers. While accessibility, information, engagement and responsiveness compose the four pillars of transportation and social media, the human facet is essential to the online presence, and displaying one requires a cultural shift from the pre-social media press releases and opaque, one-way information streams.

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From commuting to community

Naureen Kabir is Director of the New Cities Foundation Urban Lab.

Urban traffic and the difficulties of commuting are challenging issues for cities globally, especially as the already rapid pace of urbanization continues to accelerate. Delays in the U.S. alone cost an average of 34 hours a year per commuter. Moreover, wasted fuel, carbon emissions and opportunity costs mean that in the U.S. traffic congestion costs over $100 billion annually. Globally, these costs multiply: workers and students from Stockholm to Seoul cite daily commutes as a key cause of stress and missed time at work.

Governments and private companies are investigating how to address the challenges of urban mobility, emphasizing improvements in infrastructure. But one year ago, the New Cities Foundation set out to understand the potential of making commuters part of the solution. In partnership with Ericsson and the University of Berkeley, the Foundation set up a Task Force on Connected Commuting to study the impact of connecting travelers who take the same daily commute route via smartphone apps that allow them to share relevant, useful information with each other. Two pioneering commuting applications were used for the study: Waze (for car commuters) and Roadify (for public transport users). We piloted the study in San Jose, CA, which city ranks 22nd among large American cities in number of person-hours delayed (42 million annually), and 25th in congestion cost ($842 million).

The Task Force wanted to know: can a new level of networking between commuters enhance the overall commuting experience? Is the connected commute “better” than the unconnected commute? From a city perspective, is it more resource efficient?

The findings of this year-long study present an opportunity for transport agencies, local governments and app developers to identify alternative ways to effectively improve the commute experience. From a policy standpoint, the Task Force study’s bottom line is this: while innovative long-term solutions such as road space rationing (Brazil), license plate quotas (China), and congestion pricing (Britain) should continue to be implemented, in the short-term, encouraging and utilizing crowd-sourced information sharing among commuters—especially if done in a safe manner—can be an efficient, cost-effective way to build a community of commuters who themselves provide solutions to the woes of commuting.

Released last week, the study revealed that information-sharing among commuters has benefits for both individual commuters and organizations—be they public or private—working on transportation and mobility:

  • The Task Force found that commuters’ ability to receive or share real-time information with other travelers can effectively reduce commute-related stress and provide a sense of community.
  • Car commuters who are connected to other commuters via social commuting apps tend to be happier with their commutes than unconnected car commuters because of the timely information they receive—allowing them to adjust their travel—and also because of the information they’re able to share with others, giving them a sense of satisfaction at helping fellow commuters.
  • Crowd-sourced data from commuter apps is highly relevant to the topic of commuting (unlike more general social networking platforms). For transport agencies and mobile app developers this means that real-time commuter information-sharing can be a useful tool for geolocalizing frustration, that is, pinpointing where commuters are experiencing problems and at what time of day. This can, in turn, provide feedback on routes that need to be better managed by authorities. Similarly, areas associated with positive commuter sentiment could provide app developers with real-time data that acts as the basis for recommended travel routes.

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