The Growing Role of Social Media in Transportation


by Lyndsey Scofield

When you think of people who use social media, you generally don’t think of traffic engineers or state DOTs, but last week’s web-based conference on social media held by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) would surely change your mind.

With panel discussions and interactive breakout sessions, the conference mimicked a true brick-and-mortar event and attracted hundreds of attendees. For an organization that usually caters to a more traditional and technical audience, I was impressed by both the innovative format and accessible content. Clearly the transportation sector is embracing social media and looking for additional ways to take advantage of tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. This comes with great benefit to the public, who are increasingly using social media as a means to keep updated on news, express their opinions, and connect with others.

During an afternoon session called “Engaging Your Audience,” several panelists shared their success stories around using social media, and I’d like to share a couple of my favorites:

Starting locally, NYC DOT’s Neil Freeman talked about The Daily Pothole, a surprisingly entertaining and lighthearted Tumblr started by the agency to connect with a broader audience. They mainly use the site as a place to post pictures and impressive statistics about their efforts to repave troublesome roads, but more importantly, they’ve gotten residents to actually use the site to report potholes in their neighborhoods. As Neil put it, they’re “making potholes and asphalt fun!” Now who would have thought that was possible?

Image: Screenshot of The Daily Pothole, 9/26/11

My next highlight comes from Bobbi Greenberg in Arlington County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. With a dense population and plethora of good transportation options (including trains, buses, bike lanes, and zip cars), Arlington County Commuter Services really wanted to encourage more people to leave their cars at home.

They have launched a campaign called the “Car-Free Diet” that relies heavily on social media to spread their message. Their website features interactive tools like the car-free diet calculator, and they routinely post informative videos on their YouTube site. However, their major success comes from the Car-Free Skeptics Challenge, which follows the experiences of self-proclaimed “car-free skeptics” who agree to ditch their cars for 30 days. With regular blog posts, YouTube videos, and Facebook & Twitter updates, the contestants become ACCS’ biggest proponents of walking, biking, and taking public transit, putting real faces on their campaign.

Image: Screenshot of Car-Free Diet twitter page, 9/23/11

As you can see, social media allows for a level of creativity and dialogue that just isn’t possible through traditional methods of outreach. It’s promising to see interest growing in these types of initiatives among transportation agencies and organizations, and I expect that the most effective & innovative applications are still to come as more agencies embrace the social web.

The sessions from the conference were recorded and are available on the TRB website, as are the PDF versions of many presentations.