Twitter Reveals Our Commuting Angst

It’s quite well accepted at this point that our commute is one of the most stressful aspects of modern working life. Indeed, recent studies suggest that young employees would happily trade a lower salary for a shorter commute.

What can Twitter tell us about our commuting habits? Well, it would seem quite a lot.  A recent study has been trawling through the social network for all of the angry and stressful tweets we make about our commute to try and find out the most stressful forms of transport, and even the most stressful cities to commute in.

The research, which was published recently in the Journal of the American Planning Association, trawled through over 64,000 tweets made about things such as public transport, air travel, parks and police departments.

To provide a barometer for popularity, the researchers used a number of famous people, with Osama bin Laden representing the least popular, and former Star Trek actor William Shatner representing the more popular end of the scale.

The study revealed the amount of anger directed at public transport organisations, with the Washington DC metro system a particularly popular source of angst for travellers.  They were joined in the hall of shame by the transit systems of Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Of the few public transport systems that fared well, Vancouver came out on top, closely followed by the TriMet system in Portland and Toronto’s transport system.

Interestingly, it emerged that public transport seemed to be suffering from a considerable trolling problem, with a large number of users using Twitter to make insulting and sometimes discriminatory comments about fellow travellers.

“Negative and racist comments about transit patrons are a larger part of the negative comments about transit, much more so than parks, airlines or other services,” the authors say. “Otherwise, commenters appear on balance to say equally happy and unhappy things about public transit and airline service.”

Engaging with Passengers

In positive news, the study revealed that the best ratings were nearly always reserved for the organisations that actively engaged with passengers via social media.

“It’s about the marketing potential of social media—a lot of public transit agencies are simply tweeting their problems to the world by blasting out late service announcements. That’s not a good use of Twitter,” the researchers say.

“Agencies don’t want to stifle criticism or squash people’s concerns because those are valid. At the same time, you don’t want people walking away from social media thinking transit service is terrible, either, just because people complain.”

This was emphasised by the activity of Vancouver’s Translink network, who were found to make around 90 tweets per day to engage with its passengers on a whole range of issues.

This contrasted with the behaviour of the Washington Metro service, which suffered from a parody account that gained significantly greater traction than the official account and is largely used to amplify any complaints made about the Metro system.

“The analysis suggests that transit agencies can influence the tone of the discussion by interacting with patrons online,” the authors conclude. “It gives people something to respond to, and it reminds people that somebody is listening.”

Suffice to say, the study was limited to US and Canadian transit systems, so it’s hard to say how public transport in other countries would do. However, it does seem to reveal the importance of engaging with passengers on whatever medium they choose to use.  How would your own transport provider do?  Do they utilise social media effectively? Your thoughts and comments below please...

Planning and Social Media: A Case Study of Public Transit and Stigma on Twitter




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