A group of researchers studied tweets emerging from Chicago rail transit passengers, plotting them by time of day and correlating them with disruption events on the network. Emily Badger at The Atlantic has the story. A key insight:
Bus and train agencies generally gauge how riders feel about them the old-fashioned way, with surveys and focus groups. What if, instead of politely asking people if they find their morning commutes safe, sanitary and efficient, agencies tapped into the raw and unscripted assessments we all love to broadcast from our smart phones? (Case in point: I may have tweet-whined this morning from inside the Washington Metro system: "Why will it take 8 1/2 months to replace the escalators at the Dupont Metro?")
A group of researchers at Purdue suspected agencies could learn a lot about rider satisfaction by doing this (oh yeah, and all this data is free!).
Unfortunately, the results also picked up on my theme from last week:
[Samuil] Hasan, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue, presented these findings Tuesday to a riveted room at the annual Transportation Research Board conference in Washington. Noticeably absent from his charts were the moments when everyone seemed to be tweeting wild praise for the Chicago Transit Authority.
"The most interesting thing we found is that transit riders do not give any positive sentiment at a particular time. They only give negative sentiment," he said. Now, this may seem depressing if you work for one of these agencies. "But that’s not very disappointing," Hasan said, "because we found that the lack of negative sentiment is basically what transit authorities should look for. If there’s no negative sentiment at any given time, that means that things are running smoothly."
That may be partly true of operational disruptions, but Hasan seems unaware of the role of positive feedback in encouraging good work by operations employees.
In many other areas of transit agency activity, the absence of positive feedback is unequivocally a problem. In operations, "smooth running" is the goal, which menas that change is usually the enemy. But network planning, for example, is about creative change that solves problems and improves the relevance of the service. Almost everybody, deep down, feels some entitlement to the status quo, so negative feedback on a change proposal is inevitable no matter how good the plan is.
When a transit agency is trying to do something new, and good — whether in network planning, infrastructure, wayfinding, marketing, communications, or whatever — you should assume they're getting lots of negative feedback from people who just want nothing to change. That means your positive feedback really matters.