School is in session, ridership is on the rise and social media interactions are blossoming.
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) provides service to two cities, one village and the University of Illinois (UI). While the population of our district classifies us as a small to mid-level service provider, the addition of the 15th largest university in the country transforms MTD. Last year, we had another record ridership year with more than 12 million rides.
During the UI’s Fall and Spring semesters, demand swells and MTD provides nearly 24/7 service. Our bus service feels the crunch during peak times, but many evening and weekend trips also turn into standing room only as students pour into the community for shopping and recreation.
The return of more than 42,000 students also means increased traffic on our social media sites. In 2010, MTD launched profiles on Facebook and Twitter, as well as media sharing sites YouTube and Flickr. A weekly blog and bi-monthly enewsletter round out our social online presence.
Super fans, transit geeks, bus nerds — whatever you want to call them — find MTD on these platforms. Engagement occurs year-round, but the wired and tech-savvy population of the university increases engagement levels.
As the primary manager of MTD’s social media pages, I am acquainted with user names and avatars. I memorize Twitter handles and recognize faces. Some engagers I only interact with once; others I chat with regularly and have met IRL (in real life).
The one-timers often reach out to MTD because they have a question or want to report a negative experience. We value these users. Complaints are an opportunity to provide customer service, educate and improve our system.
The return of more than 42,000 students to the University of Illinois for the Fall semester means an increased demand in ridership and a significant spike in traffic on its social media sites, including Twitter.
The many-timers are not only transit advocates but tremendous resources. They are extra eyes on the street as they report issues like destination sign errors and corrections to bus stop shelter boards. They also narrate their day-to-day experiences and remind us what makes our service public.
This pool of repeat socializers comes in handy. In 2011, MTD did a complete redesign of our website. We put together focus groups, and thanks to our social media connections, were able to gather a diverse group of regular users from all over the community.
When it came time to renew MTD’s service contract with the UI, we conducted student focus groups. We opened the opportunity to all, but a number of the participants came from social media.
MTD is fortunate to have CAD/AVL (computer aided dispatch/automatic vehicle locator) technology fleet-wide. While we’ve had the system since 2003, updated and new equipment can challenge the integrity of the data. Recently, our planners were testing a new feature and needed trip data as users got it on the street. From their apps, through text messages, and at the stop digital displays, we needed to know how the time displayed compared with the real-life departure of the bus.
I sent direct messages on social media to our most detail-oriented riders asking them if they would participate in "Operation: Ground Truth Investigation." We asked them to fill out a Google form each time they rode the bus. The form detailed the trip, times, information source and actual bus departure.
MTD used social media to reach out to its most detail-oriented riders, asking them to participate in an assessment of how its real-time arrival information was displaying compared with the actual bus departures.
We contacted five users and they all agreed to participate. At the end of the two-week collection period, they submitted information on 78 individual trips. The data they submitted proved the added feature was working effectively.
Currently, MTD is updating our strategic plan. To gather external input on the district’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats we (you guessed it) used our online connections to solicit survey responses.
The frequent online interactions encourage in-person engagement, too. At our last public hearing on proposed service improvements, a small group of super fans showed up. They were all wearing the same lavender colored shirt with the numbers and letters “30 Lavender” screen printed on the back. They came to advocate to MTD’s board of trustees and staff for more service on our Lavender route. While MTD does not currently have the funds to provide the weekday evening and Sunday service the riders want, their attendance sparked great conversation and helps hone our priorities for the future.
Through social media, riders and non-riders see that MTD is a transparent organization that is always listening. They are inclined to repay that care through focus group attendance, completing surveys and keeping in touch.
In case you missed it...
Read our METRO blog, "SEPTA offers a different type of school bus"
Seeing a canine passenger on mass transit is not uncommon, but the reasons why a dog might catch the train or hop a bus are varied (remember Eclipse, the Seattle Lab mix that uses the bus, often on her own, to get to the dog park?). Most public transit pooches are working —as K-9 officers or service animals. In the Philadelphia region, other animals — in approved carriers only—are permitted to ride the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s buses, trains and trolleys. However, a new pilot program underway by SEPTA allows registered therapy dogs volunteering at two Philadelphia hospitals to use two designated bus routes to travel to their sites.
To be sure, there is no substitute for offering high-quality bus or rail transit service, but many transit agencies skimp when it comes to marketing, outreach, and education and, as a result, the public often has no idea how good the service may actually be. Buses also have an image problem in many communities, which proper marketing could help address. Witness the huge sums spent by automakers in crafting the image of their automobiles.
The Uber website proudly states that, “Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber's rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.” Such hype is common on corporate websites, but when the braggadocio is backed up by an article in the Wall Street Journal that discloses a valuation of $41 billion their ambitious words take on relevance.
As the world changes with the rapid advancement of connected devices and technologies, so must the transportation industry. In a business area where change is sluggish, DOTs across the country must adapt quickly to the evolving technologies that are going to impact their operations and budget. There are at least three technologies that will have immense impact over the next two decades on how we travel and how state transportation departments react to provide mobility — connectedness, big data and automation.
Around the world, artwork of all forms adorns transportation centers, stations and bus shelters. While many of these statues, paintings, mosaics and sculptures are permanently installed as part of a station’s architecture, transportation organizations can use their spaces for art exhibitions that not only make transit hubs more aesthetically pleasing for commuters, but also inspire budding artists. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) recently partnered with two organizations to showcase the artistic talent of youth from the Greater Philadelphia region and around the world.