New Media and Transit Complaints

So you just had a bad transit experience.  A driver was rude to you.  Your bus was early so you missed it.  Your bus was late and missed the train connection.  Or even worse: your bus is scheduled to miss the train connection.

Over at Planning Pool, (via Streetsblog) they’re suggesting a new way to express your frustration in real time, on Twitter.

One of my favorite planning-related hashtags is #transitFAIL. The purpose of #transitFAIL is to publicize where public transportation fails its customers and users. It’s a particularly effective tool, because you can use SMS messaging or use a web-enabled smartphone to instantaneously tell the world about how transit just let you down. Some smartphones can even take photos or videos and upload them to Twitter, too.

Smart transit providers will use this feedback to improve their service and see where the problems are. I’d like to see transit providers use Twitter to notify people about service changes or delays, too.

Sounds great if your goal is to express your frustration with an illusion of impact.  If thinking that you have “told the world” helps you get on with your day, then fine.  But who in the world will care?  What do you expect them to do about it?

Planning Pool provides this sample of the tag’s output, most of it completely useless to a transit agency that wants to do better.

TransitFail sharp Thanks, Scott Bradford, but what bus stop, and at what time?  And thanks, “stevevirtue”, but what are TTC and GO Transit supposed to do when you tell them, without details, that they’ve screwed up?  Feel bad so you can feel better?

Your transit provider probably does care, but here’s the hard truth:

Useful feedback often takes more than 140 characters, so maybe Twitter’s not the right tool.

For example, comments about a specific transit experience are useless, and
therefore utterly without impact, unless you’ve noted the line number
and a way to identify the specific trip on the line.  This can be
either a reference to the schedule (“the scheduled 7:05 trip from
1st & Elm”) or the vehicle number (the unique number painted on the
bus, ferry or railcar).

All this is especially important if your complaint is about
unacceptable behavior by a driver.  It’s frustrating for a transit
agency to get a serious complaint without the information they need to
identify the driver in question.  Your transit agency can use your complaint as
evidence if it wants to discipline the driver, but only if you’ve given
them the information they need.

So decide what you want.  If you want your comment to matter, provide the information that the agency needs to act on it, including contact details so they can follow up with you if needed.  Your transit agency certainly has an email address for these comments, and may even have a number to receive texts from your phone.  If you want to spew something useful on #transitFAIL, spew those addresses and tell people to send their stories there.

On the other hand, if you just want to get rid of your anger, by all means tweet it into space with #transitFAIL.  But you’ve done nothing to improve your transit system.

11 Responses to New Media and Transit Complaints

  1. Jennifer March 10, 2010 at 7:32 am #

    We actually encourage our riders to tweet us at @STLMetro if they have something to say. We can follow up with them and have a pretty substantive exchange, right out there where the whole world can see it (Transparency!) via (on their end, usually) mobile device. I think it’s helping us improve our image with customers because it’s responsive in a very public way.
    Yes, more substantive issues should be dealt with more substantively sometimes; but Twitter is a quick way to get a quick answer or alert us to a problem so we can get right on it.
    I agree that the #TransitFail tag doesn’t help much; for one thing, it doesn’t identify the specific agency. Even using “#MetroLink” or “#Metro” doesn’t help us because there are several systems with that name, though we do keep an eye on those tags, too. But you’re more likely to get a response using our actual handle.

  2. EngineerScotty March 10, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    What we need is a way (via Twitter) to tell the driver of your bus that the next stop is yours, so you don’t have to reach up and pull the cord… 🙂

  3. Aaron Antrim March 10, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    I think SF BART does the best job at engaging social media networks. They see Twitter as a way of extending and enhancing the social experience and world of transit (
    The SF BART page about their Twitter feed recommends that complaints are submitted by email form (, not Twitter.
    A better open space for collecting, displaying, and responding to rider feedback is something like Feedback submissions are as questions, ideas, complaints, or compliments, and are organized by agency or company. Responses are threaded, and public. Should the agency choose to participate, agency responses can come from an “Official rep.” I think and similar sites like, could be used well for community engagement in planning and transit.
    Here’s my blog post on for transit:
    You can see in action for a small transit agency in Humboldt County, California, here:
    I like to highlight this example of passengers helping passengers by answering their questions:

  4. EngineerScotty March 10, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    A common mistake that many people make, including myself from time to time (see prior comment), is confusing Twitter with text messaging. A transit agency might respond to text messages, but the destination for such messages need not be a Twitter account–many conversations are better conducted in private. (By the same token, if you call ’em up on the phone–the old fashioned way–they’re not likely to post a recording of the call on the Internet somewhere).
    But the larger point is a valid one–and in contexts larger than transit. Complaints for the purpose of achieving satisfaction, and complaints for the purpose of complaining, are generally take different forums and are intended for different audiences.

  5. M1EK March 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    Playing devil’s advocate, it appears to many frustrated riders of bad transit (such as city buses or poorly maintained older rail lines) that any input they gave in private, directly, would be ignored; while the tweet may at least have some impact in aggregate via embarassment.
    Or, as a cautionary tale to others. The goal might NOT be “improve your service” so much as it is “hey, everybody, don’t make the mistake I made and rely on this bus being on time”.

  6. Alon Levy March 10, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    I wish this feature had been available a few weeks ago, when my girlfriend showed up at Penn Station around 2:50 am for a 3:10 train, only to be told it had left at 2:40. (The next train was an Acela at 6:22; it got her to Providence for an interview in time, but she missed the breakfast and lab tour.)

  7. EngineerScotty March 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    Its one thing for a frequent-service city bus to be ahead of schedule… but scheduled long-distance services ought not be departing early–or if there is an early-departure window, it ought to be well-publicized.
    And with long-distance rail; one of its touted advantages is far faster checkin procedures and formalities than the bus with wings. If you need to get to the train station an hour early in order to be sure of catching the train… rail loses an important selling point over air travel.

  8. Daniel March 10, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    Apart from the lack of detail prevalent on Twitter, I don’t see the point of everyone using a hashtag like #TransitFail. Far better to adopt a particular hashtag for your area, eg the name of the local operator, if you’re going to stand any chance of them noticing it.
    In Melbourne, common ones are #MetroTrains and #Myki (the new ticket system), both of which are (sometimes) reviewed by the organisations involved. Adding #TransitFail is just another 12 characters wasted which could have been used to more specifically describe what the problem was.

  9. Angusgmelb March 10, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    I agree with Daniel. I’m also getting pretty sick of the word “fail”, both in hashtags and everywhere else on the internet. It’s especially unhelpful in a context like public transport, where small failures are part of life.

  10. EngineerScotty March 10, 2010 at 11:18 pm #

    Perhaps transit agencies ought to ignore #TransitFail, and only pay attention to #TransitEpicFail. 🙂
    But the use of “fail” as a noun is an interesting linguistic phenomenon, I’ll give you that. Especially since this particular usage seems to derive from poorly-translated Japanese video games…

  11. Barbchamberlain March 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    Found this very interesting–I’m a heavy user of Twitter.
    The use of Twitter I’d really like to see transit adopt is to provide info on anything that’s affecting service right now, including retweets from people who are reporting something (with specifics enough to be helpful as noted above).
    It’s that real-time quality that gives it value, and the crowd-sourcing can provide far more info than transit staff alone ever could (with the caveat that it’s only as good as what people tell you, but Twitter users know that).
    As a parallel, Washington State Dept of Transportation @wsdot provides updates on clogged or closed highways so you can choose an alternate route, they tweet links to road cams, they provide information on things you may have wondered about. GREAT use of the tool.
    For customer service, I’d also love to see a Twitter version of the trip planner info I can get by either calling or going to that function on If I could ask when the next #45 will go past 3rd and Sherman and get a speedy answer that would be great. (I can call and ask this so they have the staff–it’s just another medium).
    For me, Twitter lends itself to this customer service use because the answer is visible to all users and there may be others who are interested in any given question. You get wider information dispersion than a 1-to-1 phone or email exchange.
    While the #fail tag isn’t much use unless you know which system and what the issue was, I’d still say that any public agency should be monitoring sentiment to whatever extent you can. If your stakeholders are really mad, you need to know.
    If we’re going to hashtag ourselves to death, how about using #transitWIN whenever your local system works great, gets you there on time, and so forth? People remember to complain–they forget to thank.