Greater Greater Washington

Blogs and social media change the conversation on transit

Social media played a gradually growing role in Rail~Volution over the past few years. This year, panels explored topics such as blogging and how public agencies use social media.


Photo by rachelandrea on Flickr.

Both David and I sat on a panel discussing the way blogging has changed the conversation. We were joined by Reconnecting America's Jeff Wood and Curt Ailes from Urban Indy. Blogging has come a long way in the past few years, and the panel discussed the influence that blogs have had on policy and organizing movements.

One audience member said she associated blogs with someone posting pictures of their cat. And certainly that sort of thing used to be a primary function of blogs. But these days, many blogs have become a major part of the conversation. In fact, blogs like Streetsblog and Greater Greater Washington are changing the conversation.

As Curt explained, the urban conversation in Indianapolis hasn't come as far as it has here. As a result, Urban Indy plays a large role in introducing Indianans to planning concepts. Curt recounted an instance where the print media came to him about a bike path. He was able to help the reporter (and the readers) to get the terminology right and understand was was at stake.

And that's really how I see the role of Greater Greater Washington. Not as a way of bringing people over to our opinion, but as a way to give people the tools they need to be a productive participant in the conversation.

And while transforming the dialog is a great thing, social media can fill other roles, too. Metro's Nat Bottigheimer mentioned in a panel an idea for a social media network geared toward transit users. It could let transit riders share their experiences, and could help new riders to learn how to get started. While a new social medium may or may not be forthcoming, it is possible to leverage the platforms that already exist.

We heard from representatives of several public sector agencies about the role social media plays in their communication strategies. The Utah Transit Authority has a strong presence in cyberspace; using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare, YouTube, and with three blogs catering to different user groups.

I was impressed with the idea of using Foursquare and blogging to help riders (and potential riders) find things they could use transit to get to. Foursquare has always been one of the social media tools I've not found much use for. But as a spatial tool, it could prove helpful to transit agencies.

UTA's representative, Tauni Everett, also talked about using Twitter to engage the public. A recent spate of hearings about a fare hike drew less than 20 attendees to the 7 meetings held in the six-county UTA service area. But an online public hearing using Twitter generated hundreds of comments, all of which were counted in the public record.

We also heard from people from goDCgo and Nashville's MPO about different initiatives to reach out and use new tools. For planning to be effective, it needs public participation. In today's fast-paced world, it can be difficult to engage people in traditional ways. Using social media is proving to be a way to connect with new voices and regular participants alike.

In our region, agencies are using new strategies for communication as well. Metro, for example, has started to engage riders on Twitter. And the planning department there has started its own blog to help broaden the dialogue.

How do you see the role of social media and blogging as a part of the planning conversation? How could agencies like DDOT and WMATA improve? And what's the next generation of social media?

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

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to give people the tools so that people can be part of the conversation/solution, your entries ought to have more links to primary sources so people can educate themselves beyond the information you provide in an entry. If they limit their knowledge to what's in an entry, they aren't going to be very formed and able to advocate in a substantive way.

As long as the entries are presented in a manner that
act as if the worldview that matters is only what's presented in this particular blog, people's knowledgebase will remain constrained.

by Richard Layman on Oct 26, 2011 4:38 pm • linkreport

sorry, the word was supposed to be "in"formed.

by Richard Layman on Oct 26, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

"In fact, blogs like Streetsblog and Greater Greater Washington are changing the conversation."

While that's very true. The real question is 'Are they adding value to that conversation ... or instead acting as speedbumps to it by magnifying out of proportion the views of their adherents?" And I mean that both ways. I can't tell you how many times I've had people equate my views with, say, 'The Committee of 100' or other some group such as my demographic group ... Even when in reality my views are my own. And why should my views on an issue be automatically be given great weight than those of others in my demographic group (or other social association) who don't post?

Ditto for the othter demographics and associated groups. For example, as we saw on yesterday's blog concerning the actions of the governor of Virginia, he may not be doing what the denizens of GGW want, but he's definitely doing what his voters want. (Or he'll be out of office when his term is out. And if there's one thing politicians know, it's how to say and do what the people voting for them want.) Yet, if you believed this blog, every young person in Northern Virginia aspires to either move into DC or make Northern Virginia look just like downtown DC. A newscaster or other person in position of influence reading this blog could easily be left with the impression that the GGW view is the current view. Marc Fischer just yesterday(?) wrote a piece about Washington and it's current economic placement which predicated lots of its arguments on this one unproven (and probably very false if voters are to be believed) assumption.

Of course, as we read some posters saying yesterday ... 'people don't always know what's good for them ... '

by Lance on Oct 26, 2011 5:48 pm • linkreport

and just to be clear on MY position ... I think they DO know what's good for them ... And I don't think it's good for anyone to be dictating what others 'should' want ... if they knew what was good for them ... read 'bagtax' ... authoritarianism isn't a good thing ... ask the people of Libya.

by Lance on Oct 26, 2011 5:56 pm • linkreport

@Lance: McDonnell will be out of office when his term is up regardless of what people think, since the VA constitution doesn't allow him to run for reelection.

And he represents the whole state which may have different opinions than northern Virginia, or may have won based on his positions on something other than transportation.

by Michael Perkins on Oct 26, 2011 6:33 pm • linkreport

@RichardLayman; I find GGW usually links back to the orginial sources. Perhaps what you mean is more context and how it fits into the overall planner paradigm. That would be great, but that wouldn't be GGW and fantasy maps and Metro naming contests.

The only wish I have to Matt's "toolbox" is better search and indexes. The tags are very helpful (thank you!) but search is very useless.

by charlie on Oct 26, 2011 7:15 pm • linkreport

Lance, you can't be naive enough to think that what a politician does in office has any real relationship to his ability to be re-elected.

There are so many examples. People associate a candidate with their marketing message (or their opponents message) vs reality.

For example, ask the NRA about Obama and guns. Theyll tell you he's trying to take guns away. Reality (bills signed) shows the exact opposite.

Ask the tea party about Obama and taxes. Theyll tell you hes raised them every chance he gets. Reality (bills signed) shows he's lowered them like no other president ever has.

Or try this article about Perry, what he's actually done as governor, and what people think he's done, thanks to his message

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/rick-perry-the-best-little-whore-in-texas-20111026

I could go on and on. Remember the governor of California Gray Davis? Remember why he was recalled and booted out of office? What people though, and what was reality (Enron and market manipulation) were on two totally different airwaves.

by JJJJJ on Oct 26, 2011 7:28 pm • linkreport

read 'bagtax' ... authoritarianism isn't a good thing ... ask the people of Libya.

All of these laws were passed by the duly elected representatives of the voters. How dare you question the collective wisdom of the electorate! Maybe in Iran or communist China a small elite can decide that elections don't matter, but that's not the way it works in the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave! Millions of people want to come to America so they can have a say in the way their government is run. Just as the people in Afghanistan how much they like living in a society without the rule of law.

(Wow. That *does* feel good! I can see why you do it!)

by oboe on Oct 26, 2011 8:48 pm • linkreport

Correction: "as" should read "ask."

Also...FREEDOM!

by oboe on Oct 26, 2011 8:51 pm • linkreport

charlie -- I once had a planning professor (really an adjunct who was an economics consultant for transpo) who said that when you write a plan, you should know more than what you put into it, so that when people ask questions, you know more than what's in the plan. The same goes for GGW. People who read it become more knowledgeable on urbanism, because urbanism is undercovered in the local media. But they don't become that much more knowledgeable or able to act based on only reading GGW.

It goes back to what the planning professor said. My blog is different because I give people other links within the articles, I acknowledge other people's work, etc., but I also generate hypotheses and theory.

They can learn far more from that and make up their own minds, but more importantly become more deeply knowledgeable with info beyond what I would otherwise spoonfeed them, although of course I think I write "god's truth".

The best thing is of course to apply learning to practice and vice versa. That's how theory and knowledge gets generated, and hopefully, you improve things at the same time. It takes a long time, and a lot of it is unheralded.

by Richard Layman on Oct 26, 2011 10:15 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman; you and I are getting old! I've been helping this kid on his resume, and he insists on putting a movie quote there. I told him that's fine, but he has to own that quote, know everything about it, spin it a hunded ways, and what not. Needless to say he thinks I'm crazy.

I hear what you are saying, but I'm not sure provinding that level of density (hah! pun!) is what GGW is best suited for. Having an echo chamber for "urbanism" is valuable enough. Or as Matt said, a toolbox. Read GGW for a year and you're up to speed on 75% of the urban issues in this area. The analysis may not be right, but you've hit the issues.

by charlie on Oct 27, 2011 7:15 am • linkreport

Thanks for the post, Matt. Two years ago I was on a panel with Jeff Wood at Rail~Volution talking about how transit agencies were just getting started using social media. Since then, the number of transit properties using social media tools like Twitter has increased dramatically. Besides using Twitter to engage riders in the planning process, like UTA is doing, agencies are beginning to use Twitter to provide real-time customer service. Some are asking their riders to tweet the location of railcars without working a/c, Vancouver’s TransLink has formally integrated Twitter into its customer service model, and of course Metro has made the welcome transition from automated tweets to live updates.

by Susan Bregman on Oct 27, 2011 5:49 pm • linkreport

just that I'd argue an echo chamber isn't a toolbox, just like the _Smart Growth Manual_ isn't really a manual, because it just describes types of development, but doesn't provide resources for each entry, which interested nonprofessionals could use to get up to speed on each.

e.g., for all the talk of urban design in this blog, if people would just read this, http://dau049.poliba.it/admin/doxer/doc/67_1164451995.pdf, they'd be way better prepared to advocate for better development in their own neighborhoods, not to mention better advocates in general.

Or, these are tools: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/326019814/; http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/1524450483/; http://www.designadvocacy.org/docs/11_9urbandesigneval.pdf

most GGW blog entries are not.

by Richard Layman on Oct 27, 2011 7:08 pm • linkreport

@Susan Bergman:
Indeed you did. And I enjoyed that presentation very much.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 27, 2011 7:52 pm • linkreport

Still failing to see the value blogs have brought the planning process. Seems rather, a perceived notion instead of actual dialogue with planners and decision-makers.

by Luck on Oct 27, 2011 9:46 pm • linkreport

"Indianans" is not a word. The correct term is "Hoosier".

by Moochie on Oct 28, 2011 10:50 am • linkreport

blogs can be valuable in that they provide focused perspectives on issues that are not normally covered in depth by other media (other than maybe The Current, which has the best ongoing writing about development in the print media).

The thing is that you have to separate out the various effects. Blogs give (extra) prominence to some involved people, helping them with access that they might not normally have. Blogs provide that coverage which, while may not be publicly acknowledged, is used as an information resource by various stakeholders involved in the process.

E.g., I know from comments I receive that some developers, elected officials, planning and design professionals, government staffs, and other stakeholders that they read my blog.

Whether or not they are influenced is something else, especially if "bloggers" participate in discourse and processes in a variety of ways, as advocates wrt specific projects, in organizational relationships (e.g., I am on what passes for a board for Eastern market, where I have consistently argued for a master plan for the area, and a destination plan for Capitol Hill for going on 5 years, etc.), in testifying before city council or other venues, making presentations, general private e-correspondence, participation on list serves, etc.

Although it's a two way street. At least for me, I also learn, get new ideas based on the variety of communications media in which I am engaged.

On the other hand, huge segments of the world don't read blogs generally or mine in specific...

by Richard Layman on Oct 28, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

"Indianans" is not a word. The correct term is "Hoosier".

This strikes me as vaguely similar to attempting to nickname oneself "Ace". Indianans are free to cook up dashing nicknames for themselves; if my memory of middle-school is any indicator, the likelihood that the rest of us are going to play along is pretty slim.

by oboe on Oct 28, 2011 3:56 pm • linkreport

oboe, use your dictionary.. use wikipedia.. Watch the movie Hoosiers if you don't like reading... People from Indiana are called Hoosiers and have been for 200 years. You will not find the term "Indianan" anywhere reputable.

by JohnH on Oct 28, 2011 4:01 pm • linkreport

I also attended this social media session at Railvolution. Was a bit skeptical going in--who has time for blogging, there's enough drivel on the web already, etc--but ended up persuaded.

@Richard Layman, thanks much for the Danish planning report. Helpful conceptual framework for issues around safety and station design. Of course streetscape and pedestrian experience is at the core of the social experience of cities. I know this intuitively, and I'm not even an urban planner--but its always great to have objective data that substantiates one's instinct.

Which brings me to something Red Line Now PAC is working on here in Balto as we advocate for the Red Line: One of the most frequently stated concerns is that the Red Line will increase crime. Rational discourse, empirical data are helpful, but when people talk about safety, they're not necessarily looking for a scientific, peer reviewed article to change their minds. At the community level--in a public meeting, for example--expressed fears about safety and crime related to light rail aren't always amenable to reasoned discussion. And let's be completely frank: some of expressed fear here is driven by historical racial issues. No point in sugar coating or pretending otherwise. I would really like to find a way to overcome this.

Wonder what others think of this site http://pulse.media.mit.edu/ from MIT Media Lab. It allows users to participate in a visual perception study of urban settings, and decide which are safer. Trying to think of how we might use it here in Balto to help people think about the relationship bt streetscape/station design and social outcomes, eg risk of crime.

We're at a bit of a disadvantage vis a vis DC, cos we don't have many successful TOD examples here. Its an uphill battle to make the case that poor--or in most cases, completely absent--environmental design of streetscape/stations is at fault. We don't have anything near as spectacular as the Columbia Heights & U Street TOD metamorphoses to point to. Not everyone has the life experience or imagination to conceive the benefits of this rail line for our city. But maybe, just maybe, social media can help us to raise awareness.

If environmental design is the solution, then the problem will no longer be about "those people" using the train to find new places to commit crime. Hoping, anyway.

by Robbyn Lewis at Red Line Now PAC on Oct 30, 2011 10:16 am • linkreport

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