Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Idea of the day: Unite Metro and bus commuters in a social network

October 24, 2011 - 02:48 PM
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Metro reimagined as a grand mixer. (Photo: D.C. Metro Connection)

One idea from the four-day national transportation conference Rail~Volution, which came to Washington, D.C. last week, is that public transit commuters need to find 21st-century ways to  get to know others who ride along their commutes. Why? To cultivate a pride and connection among people who share the experience every day on a bus or Metro line.

"We spend $20 billion advertising cars every year," said Harriet Tregoning, the director of the District's Office of Planning. People develop pride and take a sense of ownership in their cars and in their bikes. How can public transit compete?

At Rail~Volution, Tregoning suggested the idea of using social media to bring together people who ride the same bus routes. People need to break past the mental hurdle and sense of drear that, for some, accompanies the notion of taking the public bus, especially when it's convenient to do so. She and her husband dress up in formal wear for embassy events and don't hesitate to hop on the bus fully outfitted. The mode of travel just makes the most sense for the couple, but a stigma about riding the bus persists, according to Tregoning, and these tools of social media can "make all the difference" in convincing people to ride. Design a social network or social media vehicle to bring together these riders who sit alongside one another day after day. Why remain strangers if there's no need? Tregoning laughed and suggested the idea of T-shirts.

I observed this same strange reality that we often notice and recognize our fellow commuters in the morning and in the evening. People follow the same paths we do, yet we often never learn their names or anything more than a face, an outfit, a comportment. Many transit riders are likely happy with this anonymous travel and enjoy listening to their music and podcasts and flipping the pages of a book or magazine. They like texting and e-mailing others.

But not everyone feels this way. Just look to Craigslist's Missed Connections section to know that transit often leaves people yearning to chat and get to know the others on their commute, whether by bus, Metro, bike, or otherwise. Yes, people can chat now but natural barriers exist. Tregoning's idea would remove these barriers for many individuals. They wouldn't have to join in on the social component of their bus route — whether the route acquires its own Facebook page, Twitter account, or some other mechanism to unite the commuters — but they could elect to do so if they liked to.

And the same idea holds true for the Metro. Why couldn't the Green Line commuters join together to celebrate the commute down from Petworth to L'Enfant to Branch Avenue? Why not the Red Line? One nascent social network already seeks to achieve just that camaraderie. D.C. Metro Connection is a newly launched social network that allows you to join "to create an environment for all DMV professionals and metro users to network, rant and advertise amongst each other," according to the site. "Another purpose of the website is to create a forum where DMV metro riders can voice their opinions about changes and improvements they would like to see in the DMV metro system." Vicky Hallett spoke to the site's 26-year-old creator in a recent issue of Express and she concluded it's not a bad idea, "especially if you want to gripe about busted escalators together." 

But as Hallett also notes, efforts like D.C. Metro Connection and any idea of Tregoning's would need a critical mass of individuals to join in order to create that bond and pride in our public transit commutes. Tregoning sees a culture that would lend itself well to such a connection, however. She mentions how the District has upwards of 2,000 personal blogs and our dynamically active chattering class of residents. We already see the transit conversation playing out on Twitter and elsewhere online. Why not make it real for the hundreds of thousands who commute throughout the region? Fostering this connection would make bus rides all the more enjoyable. A Rail~Volution panel from last Wednesday emphasized how much "more relaxing" a bus ride is compared to driving in a car. People like the idea of bus routes and Metro trains as long as they're frequent enough and reliable enough. Social media can only kickstart that rider culture more. Bus route T-shirts, social media, website profiles ... these are all good starts.

"Have a day where everyone wears their T-shirts," Tregoning suggested.

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