By her own admission, Jody Litvak, community relations manager at Los Angeles Metro, is an unlikely Internet pioneer. With two children of recent driving age and a career in transit that stretches back to the days when car phones were high-tech, Litvak describes herself as a mom who stumbled on to Facebook mainly because her kids introduced her to it a few years ago. After making her own page, Litvak realized that Facebook could perform essentially the same function as her own job: gathering people with a common interest and sharing ideas among them.
After gaining necessary approvals from Metro executives and thinking through internal policies, Litvak launched what is cited by many as the first official transit-related Facebook page: a “group” dedicated one of Litvak’s most monumental project—outreach on Metro’s planned $8 billion, 10-mile subway extension. Since then, Litvak has come to curate a handful of pages dedicated to different Metro projects, and she has now been joined by dozens of other agencies.
“So far so, so good,” said Pauletta Tonilas, of Denver’s Regional Transportation District. “We’re getting more fans . . . each day.”
Typically, these agencies post news, project updates, and notices for public meetings. Some agencies enter “wall” posts and Facebook messages into the public record and thereby offer stakeholders a remarkably easy way to chime in on a project of interest. At the same time, they remain wary of spam, flames, and other unruliness that can take place absent the civility of face-to-face contact.
None of these pages yet, however, could rightfully be called popular (either by the teeny-bopper standards of Facebook or in comparison with the number of riders that the agencies serve). Most pages count the number of fans in the hundreds, while a few reach into the thousands.
While the 2,300 fans of the Metro Westside Subway Extension, MARTA’s 933 fans, or 795 fans of Dallas DART (numbers as of March) may be a negligible fraction of the respective agencies’ total ridership, they’re a lot more than show up at the average community or board meeting. Thus far, agencies do not see their Facebook followings as metrics for a popularity contest.
“I would say it’s too soon” to decide how many Internet followers an agency should have, said Jennifer Weeks of the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on Public Involvement. “I’m one of those people who would be loathe to count the number of people in a room in a public meeting. I’d hate to say that we know yet what ‘effective’ is.”
“If there is good dialog and good sharing of information, we would deem that a success,” said Tonilas.
Meanwhile, because Facebook lets any user create a page on just about anything, there are also informal pages that, in some cases, have fans to rival those of the official pages. Boston MBTA does not have an official Facebook presence, but the group “Help Extend the MBTA’s Hours!!” has over 22,000 fans.
The social media phenomenon of 2009 has been no stranger to transit agencies, with many blasting out “tweets”—messages of 160 or fewer characters—to the cell phones and inboxes of “followers.” What tweets lack in eloquence, they make up for in immediacy and digestibility. For that reason, transit agencies have found Twitter to be especially useful in announcing service disruptions.
According to LA Metro’s Jody Litvak, Twitter’s shorter messages are “good for quick announcements or fast-breaking news. I don’t think we do it the way it should be done yet, and I know we’re trying to move in that direction.”
Twitter holds the potential for transit agencies to send out targeted messages to, for instance, followers of a particular bus route or a particular part of town. But its usefulness may depend on the fate of the medium itself, which is routinely praised as either the next great wave of communication (and self-promotion) or as an annoying fad that threatens to overload users with a cacophony of tweets.
“You start with, when is the bus or train arriving?” Litvak said. “But in my mind, it’s a lot more than that. You might not want to know just when the next bus is coming but when the next three are coming and how crowded they are. We can help our customers manage their demand and be smart about it.”
Given that transit agencies’ primary purpose is to move things—buses, trains, and the people inside them—it makes a certain amount of sense for them to turn to moving pictures to get their message out. While videos are hardly new to the corporate world, the symbiotic rise of cheap digital video recorders and even cheaper—i.e. free—means of broadcasting them via YouTube has made video a powerful new way to describe projects, instigate debate and put a human face on issues that might otherwise be discussed in enormous documents such as environmental impact reports and corridor studies.
“We utilize video as much as we can to help educate people, so posting those on YouTube is a little bit wider forum,” said Pauletta Tonilas of Denvers’s Regional Transportation District.
These videos may not have Avatar-like production values, but given that they can be inexpensive to produce and free to distribute, public agencies can easily fit them into their communications budgets. Presentable videos require basic production skills—storyboards, scripts, editing, plus agency officials willing to appear on camera—and should abide by a few rules of thumb: never longer than 10 minutes, quick cuts of no more than 10 seconds, consistent and unobtrusive graphics, appropriate use of video footage with narration and interviews. In short, agencies do not need entire film crews to create useful, informative videos.
While YouTube is not primarily a social networking site in the vein of a Facebook or MySpace, proponents of videos for transit planning contend that videos indirectly promote interaction by making stakeholders more informed and engaged—especially if they can substitute for sleep-inducing public meetings.
“As the length and complexity of newsletters and documents increases, the overall level of communication and understanding decreasing,” said AECOM transportation planner Brian P. Kennedy, who has done extensive work on transit agencies’ use of online video. “A video can do an awful lot of communicating very quickly and generate some understanding that you just don’t get.”
Turning to the wisdom of crowds might be an old-fashioned planner’s worst nightmare, but the interactivity of the Internet has now made it feasible for transportation planners not merely to get “input” from stakeholders but rather to let them dictate designs (or policies) and even make decisions. Such is the power of “crowdsourcing,” in which the agency poses the questions and the users provide the answers. To proponents, it represents the interactivity of the Internet at its best.
“Something like crowdsourcing is much more interactive,” said Daren Brabham, a Ph.D. candidate in communications at the University of Utah. “It’s a pull mechanism. You’re asking for ideas and pulling them in from the public, and you’re educating them in the process.”
Crowdsourcing refers to the notion that Internet users can be recruited not just to respond to things like surveys but can in fact generate, and weed through, ideas themselves. Crowds’ ideas can be solicited through media as simple as traditional websites and Facebook pages, and then voting can ensue. Though crowdsourcing relies on the interest of the general public and therefore can never elicit a perfect sample set, its proponents argue that with enough participants and enough sincere voters, ideas that are both practical and original can arise.
Brabham serves as a project leader for the Next Stop Design competition, which used “peer-vetted creative production” to solicit and vote on designs last year for a next generation bus shelter in Utah. The contest organizers laid out specific parameters for functionality, cost, environmental regulations, and the like and then set up a website where users could upload their designs. The designs were then put on display for users to vote on them. The competition elicited 260 designs and over 11,000 votes.
The result, Brabham said, is that the Utah Transit Authority now has a striking new bus shelter design without ever having to pick up a pen or commission an architect. Next Stop’s latest competition focused on improvements to a transit-heavy intersection in Salt Lake City’s Sugarhouse neighborhood.
“The crowd will mostly give you bad ideas,” said Brabham. “But if you empower the crowd to weed out the bad ideas, eventually the crowd finds the best stuff. That proved to be true. The more feasible designs ended up winning.”
While the Internet naturally lends itself to crowdsourcing projects with strong visual components, Brabham said there is no reason why an agency could not solicit ideas for a new policy or, perhaps, a new bus route. The principle, in any of these cases, is that collective wisdom can often produce more favorable results—and do so more efficiently—than would the top-down system of presenting alternatives and going through the often tedious, and sometimes inconclusive, process of weeding through stakeholders’ comments and opinions.
“The more traditional methods like town hall meetings, charettes and all that try to invite the public in for comments and feedback,” Brabham said. “The problem with the existing methods: there’s expense involved, you have to hire facilitators, you have to spend a lot of money recruiting individuals to come to meetings. They take up a lot of time. You’re constantly trying to get a representative sample, and a lot of times you fall short."
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