Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Commuting's intense emotions come out online in Twitter 'micro-participation'

January 25, 2012 - 12:47 PM
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What Austin commuters talk about online. (Photo: TRB)

The Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting is this week in D.C. and I've been looking through the treasure trove of research papers that many different experts and academics have submitted on every topic imaginable.

Jennifer S. Evans-Cowley of Ohio State and Greg Griffin of Austin's Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and adjunct lecturer at Texas State University-San Marcos have released a paper addressing how transportation planners and transit authorities have taken advantage of social media. They conducted a mixed-methods analysis of what's going on on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms and coordinated with the Social Networking and Planning Project to collect results. Among their conclusions they note:

The growth in use of location-aware social media, such as geo-tagged microblogging, has the potential to extend planning participation to citizens, who could digitally tag such planning issues as in this case the location of traffic congestions, areas where bike paths are needed or other transportation related issues. Smartphone technologies have the potential to further democratize planning by allowing participants to join the planning conversation from their regular locations and on their own terms. We contend that micro-participation provide new and valuable opportunities for public participation that should be integrated into a broad-scale participation process.

What these researchers are considering is a little phenomenon they call "micro-participation," something I've observed in D.C. in different ways.

The two TRB researchers captured nearly 50,000 "raw microblogs" to process, around 11,000 (limited to Austin, Texas) of which were ultimately analyzed. They quickly realized that online transportation dialogues are emotional, and about 45% of the microblogs collected expressed some sentiment, positive or negative. There's also modes that are inevitably more popular. In these results, people talk online about traffic the most, then bicycles, then buses, and then cars ... although I suspect an analysis of D.C. would find our Metro at the top of the list.

In D.C., people engage in these transportation discussions online on their own in different ways, of course. Metro riders share their frustrations and insights on Twitter via the hashtag #WMATA, just as D.C.'s bicyclists tag their tweets with #bikeDC and new service Uber branded their fans' fondness with #UberDClove. A rigorous examination of these discussions can reveal commuters' tastes and perceptions rather well, as the Atlantic Cities found in Chicago transit.

But transportation authorities have also taken advantage of this conversation. The D.C. government has crowdsourced ideas for a sustainable city and held live chats. At the District Department of Transportation, communications director John Lisle engages in regular back-and-forth with D.C. residents and even offers his own trivia questions about the city's transit history. WMATA has attempted to engage riders in different ways, at times on Twitter but more notably on Facebook and through video in recent months.

You see that in public forums as well but more significantly echoed online. Bike planning in particular has tapped the online biking community to help identify the needs and desires of different bicyclists. In Arlington, people pinpointed different locations on a digital map to help choose the new Capital Bikeshare locations last year. When assessing the pedestrian woes of Maryland Avenue, DDOT sought comments from residents via a similar online map. The result is that the transportation planning process becomes more collaborative than ever before and the dialogue is ongoing. Yet do these public offerings really influence decision-making at any of the transportation organizations? "[Micro-participation] faces substantial technical, analytical, and communication barriers to influence decision-making," they note, basing their conclusion on interviews with different transportation officials.

Although they discussed the negative sentiments that arise online, the researchers failed to consider how loud the negative volume can be in some instances. Sometimes the social media hammer can fall back hard on the transportation authorities who dip into it, and I thought immediately of how people talk about Metro online. Just look at all the online rage toward WMATA for a case study in how commuters stage a digital revolt over their perceptions of service. As wonderful as social media is, be warned, transportation planners. It can bite.

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