April 2011

Utah turns to Twitter to talk fare hikes

by METRO Staff

Photo Courtesy UTA

Photo Courtesy UTA
In what is thought to be a first, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) used the social networking tool Twitter to conduct a public meeting to discuss the agency's proposed fare hike which, if approved, would go into effect in May 2011.

During the event, which took place in mid-February, UTA GM Michael Allegra presided over a team posting from the @rideuta account, using the hashtag #utafare, as they responded to comments during the hour-long chat.

An estimated 50 people tweeted 247 comments that were recorded and entered as part of the official public record on the UTA's current fare proposal.

Allegra and staff from UTA's fare collection department answered nearly 100 questions, ranging from the fare proposal to electronic fare collection and service.

The event generated a lot of interest, not only from the local community, but from around the world. People from as far away as London and Australia "listened" in, said Tauni Everitt, UTA's public relations officer.

When asked what prompted the UTA to take this step, Everitt said Allegra wants to focus on transparency and more open public communications, as well as take advantage of new forms of communication to reach out directly to customers without having to go through a third party. "What more public forum than Twitter to conduct a meeting of this nature," she said.

In addition to the Twitter chat, the UTA held seven public hearings on proposed fare increases, with the Twitter chat eliciting more participation than all the meetings combined, according to Everitt.

Attracting participation in traditional public hearings has been challenging for the UTA, something with which many transit systems can agree. At the most well-attended of these meetings 12 people showed up, while, at others, sometimes only one person was in attendance or, none at all.

"We have a very large service area...so we're traveling pretty far to go to these meetings, and when you go out and spend three or four hours with staff and court reporters, etc., it's a pricey endeavor for the agency," Everitt said. "So, we are exploring new ways to reach out to the public as public interests in these types of issues changes and public interaction with communication, in general, changes."

Before holding the Twitter chat forum, the UTA laid some ground rules, which they posted on their blog. They asked participants to focus on the set topic - the proposed fare hike — and stated that additional questions may not be answered during the course of the chat. The latter rule didn't come into play, as Allegra and his staff were able to answer all questions during the allotted time.

Once the chat concluded, the UTA asked participants for their feedback regarding the nature of the event and received all positive responses. Comments ranged from, "'Great chat, thanks for answering all my questions,' to 'I found it incredibly helpful,'" said Everitt.

Although the chat went smoothly, UTA staffers did see potential challenges and compiled a best-practices list to help with future Tweetings. "What happens when the number of people interested in the topic doubles? You can only have so many people involved without doubling up and answering the same question twice," Everitt said. The staffers also found it was important to have prepared messaging ready to post when there is a lull in the "conversation." "We never had a point where we weren't typing something, but it would be nice to put more information out to steer the conversation ...and use it to spark discussion," she said.

Due to the success with the initial Twitter chat, the agency held a second one in March to discuss another hefty issue — proposed service cuts.

 


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