Sunday, April 3, 2016

METRO Houston and Social Media - New @METROHouAlerts

Over the past week or so some might have noticed that the Twitter account for Houston's METRO system had started tweeting bus delays. Until then, only a few rail line service announcements made their way into the Twittersphere. Now, after a week or so of service announcements on their main Twitter handle, the agency has employed a separate Twitter account, @METROHouAlerts, to keep riders aware of bus, rail and HOV/HOT lane delays or service announcements. (I had a draft post earlier in the week that recommended creating a separate service announcement account, but METRO beat me to it!)

It may not mean much of anything to most, but this is certainly new, and is reflective of the growing desire of METRO to better inform its customers and provide increased customer service. 

One might ask whether this process is practical for individual bus routes, especially those that are infrequent. Who am I to decide? What's the proper service tweeting etiquette? This has the ability to unravel into a Seinfeld-like discussion about "over-tweeters". Maybe the delay notices are needed on frequent routes like the 82 that are the backbone of METRO's bus system.

On a normal day though, it could be questioned how necessary or effective the notices are, especially when METRO readily provides notice on their TRIP application, and through the agency's text updates, personalized to each bus stop. It seems that riders may be apt to rely on notices through those services.

Now, METRO's Twitter account is a relative lightweight at 7,400 followers when compared to other metropolitan transit systems. (And as of Sunday night, just over 100 people have followed the @METROHouAlerts account). This is likely indicative of METRO's ridership share as well. Do the majority of METRO's riders even use Twitter? I'd argue no, not many do. Or, maybe not enough to warrant real-time system delay announcements on their main feed.

Chicago's @CTA account has 102,000 followers. The CTA doesn't separate service alerts from their general tweets, something that many other agencies do. The Bay Area is a bit different. San Francisco's @SFBART account has 136,000 followers.  San Francisco's @SFBARTalert account has over 48,000 followers by itself. Houston's METRO is moving toward this model, separating general information from service announcements. DART in Dallas also employs a separate alert account. You could also take an ultra-tailored social media approach, as the Philadelphia area's SEPTA has, customizing riders' Twitter feeds with accounts for each trolley, regional rail (come on Houston!), and subway line. This account from Boston's MBTA gives some background into how their agency benefited from some civic hacking, allowing for the creation of individualized service announcement Twitter accounts for the agency's most popular transit lines.

I know that Houstonians are often quick to point out that Houston shouldn't be compared to other large cities. "We're different and unique." Well, yes. But we're the 4th largest city in the country. The unincorporated areas of Harris County, many of which are service by METRO, would be considered one of the most populous cities in the country by itself. So, there are many people who rely on public transit, and likely desire to continue to gain more and more information on a system that they depend on. (There was a 3% increase in METRO's local bus service from January 2015 to January 2016.)

Do Twitter updates of delays make the system more enticing or appealing? Possibly. I doubt that anyone will decide to use METRO simply because of the fact that they provide service updates through social media. I think there's a greater stigma toward public transit here in Houston that will extend beyond being relevant on social media. But, as an agency, METRO is attempting to do all it can to be sure that once someone rides their network for the first time they are presented with as much information as possible, and their travel experience is one worth repeating.

METRO continues to make improvements to their community engagement, and I believe it will pay dividends as the agency looks forward as to how to better serve their customers. Providing riders with continued information about delays is just another way METRO is displaying its desire to provide continuously improving customer service.