Friday, February 12, 2010

Let’s Talk Twitter

Note: If you’re looking for the blog post containing the latest weather-related service updates please click here.

It’s been quite a week. A challenging week, and a virtually unprecedented one in terms of communicating with riders.

We’re looking forward to continuing to talk with you on Twitter. One of Port Authority’s goals is to work toward increased accessibility and transparency. Twitter is a big part of that. And since we’re trying to be more transparent, we also want to talk openly with riders about what our limitations are and what riders can expect.

Who maintains your Twitter feed?

@PGHtransit is run by two employees in the Public Relations department, Jim and Heather. Heather manages it, so most of the time you’re talking to her.

Twitter is just a small part of our job duties. We also serve as spokespeople for media interviews (you might have seen us on TV, heard us on the radio or read our words in the paper), work with the planning/scheduling and marketing departments to create newsletters and brochures, work with the IT department to maintain web site content (and plan a new site!), support the work of our colleagues in community outreach and civic affairs, and much more. Before the snow hit we’d been working to assemble information and craft a PR blitz for the upcoming Transit Development Plan route changes.

Where did you get your detour information from during the storm?

Our Twitter feed really couldn’t exist without the following people:
  • Our drivers, who brave icy, snowy roads and bad traffic to see which roads are passable and which are not – and deliver riders safely to their destinations.
  • Our road operations crew, who put in incredibly long hours checking road conditions, pulling out buses that get stuck and writing the detours that allow buses to safely navigate the streets.
  • Our Customer Service representatives, who communicate with road operations and traffic to stay up-to-the-minute during frequently shifting situations.

Road operations and Customer Service feed the information to PR, and we use it to update the web site, Twitter and our blog.

Why can’t you tell me where my bus is? Why did you refer me to Customer Service?

Unfortunately we just don’t have access at this point in time to the database that contains this kind of information. We understand how frustrating it can be to wait for a late bus since we’re Port Authority riders, too.

Customer Service is a great resource and they’re great at what they do – our Twitter feed will never replace Customer Service, and that’s for many reasons…especially for the fact that not all our riders have access to Twitter or the internet.

Our Customer Service representatives are incredibly experienced in helping people plan trips (they can do this much faster than we can), and they have access to information that we don’t, like specific info on late-running buses.

We realize sometimes Customer Service is busy, or there are long waits, and that’s particularly true during events like the recent storms. But please keep trying – they’re there to help.

When can you help me?

Before the snowstorm hit we began working on a background graphic that would set hours for Twitter. It’s already uploaded along the left side of our Twitter page, but we’re still tweaking it to make it readable on most screens. In keeping with what we’ve seen some other transit agencies do – check out Portland’s TriMet – we designed the graphic to specify “Twitter hours” to match our administrative office hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday.

That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t be doing things like posting an alert if we’re notified of a T delay at 6:30 a.m. or 8 p.m. (we receive alerts on significant T delays via our mobile phones). And certainly if there was another severe snowstorm like this one, we’d be posting as required, taking questions and working long hours to ensure you get the information you need. Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary service.

But under normal circumstances the use of Twitter hours might be necessary given our limited staffing. Admittedly, Twitter hours would mean that sometimes riders would have to wait for a response. Customer Service could provide an immediate response outside of Twitter hours, since they operate from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends and major holidays.

We realize there is a gap in terms of when riders can get information. We’re trying to brainstorm creative ways to bridge that gap using our existing resources (funds, time and employees), as well as exploring the idea of new technologies to share updates. Redesigning our web site to make it more user-friendly will go a long way toward enabling riders to easily find information on their own…and that’s something we’re working on.

The ideal would be to provide real-time information, but at this time we’re missing a link in the technology needed to provide that. Our vehicles are getting GPS, but we don’t have the equipment to use the data. Getting real-time information up and running is one of our goals, but like many things in the world of transit, it all comes down to funding. We have applied for grant money to make real-time a reality for Port Authority and we’re hoping we get it.

What’s going to happen next time it snows?

Depends on how severe the storm is. When it’s a more typical snowfall of a few inches, we’ll probably do what we’ve done in the past – use Twitter, the web site and the local media to tell riders to go to main roads, busways and the T. Many of you probably know where to go in this situation – head to the main thoroughfares in your neighborhood, the ones that get cleared first.

For a storm like those we just experienced, where service is significantly halted or detoured, expect another tweetstorm.

I have an idea about how you can use Twitter. Want to hear it?

Yes! We’ll be honest if something isn’t feasible but we’re open to suggestions and discussion. We know there are lots of great ideas out there.

What do you hope to accomplish with Twitter?

We want Twitter to be…

  • A place for riders and the public to get accurate, timely transit information
  • A place where people can interact with an agency that serves them
  • A place where riders can share their experiences, both positive and negative
  • A way to direct people to information that they might not otherwise know about
  • A method of collaborating to improve our services

With that in mind, thanks for all of your support. Please feel free to share your ideas and opinions below – we’re listening.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Keeping track of the Twitter posts has prevented me from walking to the wrong place to catch detoured buses, so even that by itself made it all worth it for me.

    Real-time bus tracking via GPS data would be an amazing feature. It's unfortunate but true that I've waited for buses that never ended up coming—at least five or six times since I became a regular rider in August. (Usually, these seem to be "holes in the schedule"—as in, a bus is scheduled to come at times A, B, and C, but for whatever reason, it only shows up at times A and C on a certain day.) Being able to just see on a map on my phone that no bus is coming would take away a lot of the uncertainty and frustration, since I could switch over from "waiting" mode to "figuring out a different solution" mode, maybe walking to catch a different bus somewhere else.

    My concern with it, though, is that tech-savvy folks like myself would be sure to use that capability each and every day, but a lot of less tech-inclined riders, especially those without smartphones, wouldn't. And I imagine the cost of implementing a web-based tracking system, as big an undertaking as that is, would be just a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of implementing some kind of a network of information kiosks at bus stops in order to let all riders take advantage of that information. Maybe that's a problem that solves itself as people get better and better mobile devices and become more comfortable using them, but I feel like that sort of mass-adoption is another 5–10 years off.

  2. I, for one, am jumping-up-and-down happy you're doing this. I've been saying for years (easily 15+) that Port Authority needed to do a better job of putting up-to-the-minute transit info out there. And now you have! Yay!

  3. Thank you very much for the Twitter updates, especially during the recent bad weather. It has been immensely helpful to my colleagues, friends, and me. The Twitter updates are perhaps the single most impressive milestone that I have witnessed in my 30+ years of riding the Port Authority.

  4. Real time information available on the internet will make a huge difference, and I'm very happy to know that you all have identified it as importand and are pursuing funding.

    Bill above makes a good point about tech deficits. I am coming to Pittsburgh from Portland, Oregon, and in Portland, the real time departure/arrival info is available not just via the internet, but also via a simple phone call. I dial the right number in Portland, identify my specific bus stop or route, and I can hear the info over the line from a computer. Accessing the info via normal phones would greatly narrow that deficit.

  5. The twitter feed has been a godsend this week. Kudos to you for making this happen and for faithfully updating and interacting with passengers.

  6. Oday makes a good point I didn't think of- Vancouver also has a system like that, where you can call a central phone number, punch in code for the stop you're standing at (each one has a number displayed), and get information about when the next buses are coming. I didn't use it personally when I was there this past December, but I saw other people doing it.

  7. Twitter is a great communication tool and was helpful during last week. In this day and age, it is important to keep up with technology.

    That being said, GPS is a great step and I hope funding comes your way.

    Keep up the good work.

  8. Another vote for GPS. The twitter feed has been really valuable over the last couple of weeks.

  9. Thanks for important discussion of tech deficits and overall interesting ideas. Keep 'em coming!

    Unfortunately we did not receive any money from the TIGER grants announced earlier this week but we are going to continue to seek funding for real-time (among other projects) because it is an important part of our plans to improve as an agency.

    Next week the PR team will be meeting with a few other departments to discuss our rider communications during the storm and to see how we can improve, both in general and for future major events. I'll be keeping your ideas in mind as we move forward.

    Perhaps our biggest challenge with Twitter at the moment is educating riders about who maintains the feed, what our limitations are, etc. -- all the things discussed in this blog post. We know, however, that not all our followers will read this post no matter how many times we link to it, and in fact there seems to be a significant number of riders who use Twitter to ask us questions but do not follow our updates -- for instance, they don't see our tweets that explain that we can't provide bus delay info.

    We're trying to think of some ways to address that segment of riders, particularly as we move toward "Twitter hours." Maybe use some sort of auto-responder during off hours? Any feedback/ideas on this subject are welcome.

  10. Twitter seems like a good idea, but as someone who doesn't useTwitter regularly or just read it, it is very confusing. I am just seeing a bunch of replies without seeing the original question. Is it possible for PAT to use a message forum format so readers can see questions and replies?

  11. Regarding the last comment, there are certain advantages to using Twitter over a forum or message board format. Immediacy and portability are big ones – users can subscribe via cell phone to receive our Twitter alerts, and we use special applications to alert us to Twitter messages we’ve received (handy if we need to step away from the computer to attend a meeting, for instance).

    If you are interested in seeing what prompted a reply from us, you can click on the name of the user we’re responding to – as long as they don’t have a private feed, you should be able to read their original question, though you may have to scroll through their feed a bit to find it.

    I am not aware at this time of a way to filter out our feed so you don’t see @ replies, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to do this. We’ll keep looking, and will also keep the message board format in mind.

    Our Customer Service department is reachable via email if you have a question or comment you’d prefer to share privately – just use this form on our Web site: