Transit cranks up the twittering machine

By David Hubbard

Twitter as everyone knows by now is a free Internet social networking site where people keep in touch through tweets — abbreviated messages to friends and followers limited to no more than 140 typed characters with little room for development. I am all for communicating thoroughly in as few words as possible, but I do not twitter. Think haiku poetry in which the form reduces the keenest observation to its purest 17 syllables.

As a raw quip punched off the cuff the average tweet doesn’t even come close in its limited space. I taught in public schools long enough to know the cacophony of everyone talking at once and not much being said. It reminds me of the twittering machine the artist Paul Klee imagined. Crank it up and his strange, mechanical birds sing their hearts out to no avail. I prefer the thoughts and ideas of my friends and associates, and strangers alike, expressed fully and completely.

Nonetheless, I am beginning to at least understand the value of work-related tweets, and take the phenomenon a little more seriously now that a number of public transit agencies are onboard with Twitter. Transit officials across the country have discovered how quickly news travels along the twittering machine and are implementing the service to communicate openly and directly with customers. In this respect, Twitter is on track to become an indispensable Internet utility. Burbank Bus, Burbank, CA, has joined Twitter, finding the technology makes bus travel through the city even easier. Burbank Transportation manager Adam Emmer sees the popularity of Twittering as a perfect storm.

“People have become very technically savvy while cell phones have become pocket-size computers,” he says. “It is important that Burbank Bus provide customers and the community with as many resources as possible to enhance their travel.” Considering its sudden popularity, Twitter is a perfect tool to disseminate real-time updates regarding route delays, service changes and special announcements to followers on cell phones and computers. In the Seattle, WA area, King County Metro Transit is twittering to notify riders of service disruptions and allow them to chime in with their comments.

In a 414-square-mile area from Seattle to Tacoma and Olympia, Pierce Transit relies on the online social networks to reach riders who receive much of their information through Facebook and Twitter. Transit riders in British Columbia tout the South Coast BC agency TransLink as one of the most Web-savvy transit organizations in Canada. TransLink officials see Twitter as an increasingly important platform for news and connections and anticipate it being a key communications tool during the 2010 Olympics.

Between the normal functions e-mail and telephones where people communicate at length in full sentences, I still question the ultimate value of Twitter. But I suppose it is wise to at least make the most of the service of preference. Transit agencies can put out their messages and alerts, and to some degree get an immediate pulse on the community through the tweets they receive. Considering the demographic that sets the bar on social networking, it is surprising not many university transit systems are drawing on the immediate popularity of Twitter. Auburn University, George Mason University and Boise State are exceptions.

Again, these institutions use Twitter primarily to inform student riders of issues with their system, such as route delays because of traffic jams or weather, and any update or change to the transit service. Auburn Tiger Transit spokesperson Christi Story says developing a critical mass of followers is a challenge that colleges and universities face in maximizing the Twitter potential.

She says Tiger Transit has posted a Follow Us on Twitter sign-up graphic on its Web site. Georgia Southern University does not use Twitter or Facebook. “We expend a lot of time and effort on a Web site that is available to all who need information,” says Bob Chambers, director of Parking and Transportation. “We use the campus e-mail list serves and direct e-mail to students when we need to put out blanket announcements. This seems to work well for our purposes.” I’ll give you Twitter, but I take Mr. Chambers’ sentiment.