Friending Transit

By Denis and Mark Eirikis

In just the past few years, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging have rapidly become some of the most powerful and effective tools a transit agency can use to engage their current and potential ridership as well as other important stakeholders. In what started as a trickle, now more than 50 transit agencies in the United States have some form of social media presence. Large transit agencies such TriMet, DART and BART, as well as many smaller agencies, have leveraged social media in a way that projects a more friendly and personal face for transit to the public.

Repeat Customers
In the world of public relations, a home run used to be defined as landing a favorable article in the daily newspaper or a nice feature segment on the local television news. But that scenario has faded into the dust bin of history. Readership has declined so rapidly that now only 13 percent of Americans buy a daily newspaper. Viewership of local television news also continues to decline as the American public changes the way it learns about your transit agency.

The sea change to social media away from traditional media has been dramatic. A single social media Web site,, now enjoys more than twice as many American viewers daily as all newspapers in the United Sates combined.

Unique Aspects of Social Media
It is ironic that one kneejerk reaction to the new media is the misperception that an agency may lose control of the message with riders posting comments. Savvy communications professionals see things differently. “The advent of social media has helped me change my strategy as a communications professional,” states Houston Metro VP of Communications and Marketing George Smalley. “Before I had to urge the news media to carry my messages but they were always filtered and sometimes distorted. Now I have new media available to send my messages directly to my audience.”

Age-old problems of reporters getting the facts wrong or misquoting are solved by social media. This may even be more important during these days of widespread decline in the quality of reporting by traditional news media. Newspapers around the country are cutting staff and experienced reporters are being laid off. For example, one Florida newspaper recently forced its experienced transportation reporter into retirement. The replacement reporter is inexperienced, unfamiliar with public transportation issues and covers many topics, transportation being only one.

The benefits of social media to the mass transportation community include:

  • Communicate directly, not filtered or distorted.
  • Less expensive than traditional forms of advertising.
  • Communicate in real time, transit agencies can “tweet” riders when delays might occur.
  • Create an interactive dialogue with those most interested in hearing about your agency and services.

Founded in 2006, Twitter has astonished the critics and has quickly become a part of the vocabulary of most adults. Still one of the fastest growing social media services, Twitter has become an integral part of the public relations and marketing efforts of dozens of large transit agencies.

Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) was the industry’s first adopter to Twitter. Melissa Jordan of BART says, “I think Twitter humanizes our brand. That comes up quite a bit in the feedback we get from customers, they feel a more personal connection when they can communicate with us in real time, and know that we’re listening and answering their questions. So it’s helped to align with the strategic brand initiative that we have of making BART more approachable, friendly, modern and dynamic.”

The nature of Twitter allows members of the public to easily tweet a message to an agency, and the agency can tweet back a reply. The result is that the concerns of the community can be publically addressed on Twitter. This simple action goes a long way to create a more favorable public impression of the agency. People appreciate it when they feel like their concerns are heard and addressed, and not simply ignored.

An important consideration with Twitter, and any other social media platform, is whether or not the transit agency is able to commit the time required to write updates and respond to messages. Having a rarely updated Twitter or Facebook page only serves to undermine the positive effects of social media. Rather than an inviting and open forum for discussion and news, it becomes stale and unappealing. The transition is surprisingly easy.

Like most systems, BART uses a mixture of social media channels to communicate with the public. In addition to Twitter, BART also uses Facebook and boasts an impressive 8,000 fans.
Houston Metro was one of the first agencies in the United States to commit to a regular and interactive blog, which has been going strong since January 2007. This year, it added a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. George Smalley says, “We like to use the right tool for the right occasion. We use Twitter for immediate service issues, we use Facebook for corporate communications, and we use blogs for more detailed general information, such as explaining a new route or service.”

Jennifer Kalczuk, External Relations manager of The Rapid (Transit Authority for Grand Rapids Metro) says, “The Rapid has been using social media for almost a year (started in January 09) as another means to communicate with our customers and the broader community.  Currently we use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. We see these media as having different applications and different capabilities than our Web site.  The Web site is built for information or specific functions, such as finding a route schedule or purchasing tickets. Social media is created for interaction. This helps to build trust, open up dialog and increase transparency. We’ve created a number of how-to videos that are posted to our YouTube channel, like advice for the first-time rider and how to use the bike racks and fareboxes. The Rapid is in the middle of creating a 20-year transit master plan and using social media has allowed us to reach and engage new audiences in the process.”

The Greater Bridgeport Transit (GBT) System started its social media presence in April of 2009. GBT had been considering the use of one or more of the social networks to supplement outreach activities for several years. In April 2009, GBT decided to use Facebook as part of its efforts to promote a series of Earth Day activities. The overall goal was, of course, to increase ridership, but GBT was also rolling out a new brand and working toward an improved image in the communities it serves. Facebook appeared to be a perfect addition to this effort. In early April 2009, GBT activated a fan page.

Development Manager Doug Holcomb states, “During the planning of our Facebook page and prior to launch, there were numerous skeptics who feared it would be a public forum for agency bashing. Some staff members noted that opening such a page would invite a barrage of criticisms and the agency would spend too much time addressing them. Senior management, however, was onboard from the start.”

Senior management was right. General Manager/CEO Ron Kilcoyne says, “Since the page went live we have had nothing but positive feedback and legitimate comments or observations about our services and we have been able to respond to all of them. While Facebook allows page administrators to “hide” or delete comments, we did not plan to and have not had to use this feature.”

The Orange County Transportation Authority recently launched a public “e-volvement” program to optimize community involvement and public participation utilizing cost-effective social media tools to create opportunities for meaningful public engagement.

On average, OCTA and its communications employees receive approximately 300,000 mentions on social media networks in a week — a high number of views considering it is without the associated cost of paid advertising or promotions. “OCTA’s social media program is integrated into our public outreach efforts,” says Ted Nguyen, manager of OCTA’s public communications and media relations department. “It doesn’t replace — but rather enhances — our ongoing communications and outreach work.”

“We directly participate in many conversations to ensure our community members know we’re listening, and to share information and additional insights with our community,” says Ellen Burton, OCTA’s executive director of External Affairs. The OCTA Facebook fan page serves as a hub for our other social media efforts with posts of YouTube videos, links to other project pages, photos of construction milestones, slideshows with important rail safety information, and other postings to invite people to community events or share photos of past events.

Putting a Face to OCTA on YouTube
The OCTA team also developed a YouTube segment called “Transportation in 2” using an inexpensive Flip video camera. OCTA has been able to capture major events on camera, including its new CEO Will Kempton’s first ride on an OCTA bus and the groundbreaking ceremony of a new lane on the SR-91.

OCTA’s communications team also captured Gov. Arnold Scharzenegger, Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and other Southern California officials in a news conference to announce a $4.7 billion application to fund high-speed rail in California. The Anaheim-to-Los Angeles section of high-speed rail is anticipated to be America’s first segment with an iconic transportation gateway called ARTIC, or the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center.

“Creating these videos is quick, easy and extremely cost-effective,” says Sarah Swensson, who anchors the videos. “The style of the video is not slick or overproduced — it’s authentic — which matches the tone of the current economic climate. It has more than 6,000 views and public feedback is really supportive with people sharing with us all the time their appreciation of OCTA doing more with less.”

OCTA is not the only transit system jumping on YouTube. The Florida Public Transportation Association is planning a statewide contest. It is encouraging Floridians to post their positive and funny experiences using Florida public transit, and hopes to harvest clips and stories that the individual transit agencies can use.

Houston Metro is growing its YouTube channel and recently posted a parody of a Bob Dylan video that features the benefits of transit. DART in Dallas has a YouTube channel featuring interviews with a variety of staff and riders.

The nature of social media is that it is a two-way street. It’s built to be interactive, unlike more traditional Web sites that simply post route maps and news releases. Web sites integrated with social media are often called Web 2.0.

Web technology incorporating geographic positioning systems (GPS) technology can change the nature of what it means to wait for the bus. Many systems are posting “bus tracking” on the Web, as is the case with the Gainesville Florida Regional Transit System. Visitors to its Web site can watch the progress of every bus in the system online, live. “Gator Locator is a partnership between RTS and the University of Florida which allows UF and our other riders to see the GPS location of the equipped buses at any given time,” say Jesus Gomez, RTS transit director. “The implementation of the system has decreased the number of calls to our customer service center as people can check the bus position from their mobile phone, computer or through our Web site.  We have gotten many compliments from our riders and have seen more than 5 million hits to the Gator Locator page in the last year.”

Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a transit lobbyist and advocacy consultant, says, “Transit leaders need to start thinking about sales, not just service. Social media forces someone at the agency to think like a salesperson, because they will be in touch with riders and potential riders directly.”

He states that another benefit is that it is easier to organize a constituency of voters who support more transit investment if the agency is constantly growing their base of riders who voluntarily associate through social media. He encourages systems to build their bases using social media. “When it’s time to go for a referendum or to the legislature, those connected riders and supporters will be some of the most important volunteer advocates for the cause.”

Social media is another valuable tool available to help agencies communicate with their stakeholders. As Doug Holcomb of Bridgeport Transit says, “It is understood that not everyone has a Facebook page but the GBT believes the use of social networks, like Web pages, will rapidly become more common place and the agency’s fan base will grow. We intend to increase its use and will be considering the use of other social networks and what they can do for our riders.”

Denis and Mark Eirikis work for