One of the things that has long plagued the Port Authority is a failure to communicate. And I'm not just talking about surly bus drives: For years, the agency just hasn't done a great job of telling riders about what's going on with the system. Witness, for example, the absence of posted schedules at bus stops -- something you can find in transit systems all over the world.
But I want to give credit where it's due ... especially in light of a snowstorm that has generated a blizzard of complaint about the region's transportation network. Over the weekend, I found myself hooked on the Port Authority's Twitter account, which I've never really noticed before.
Apparently, I'm what's called a "late adopter." Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie tells me that the Twitter account -- which the Authority has done little to promote -- really took off during the G-20. Of the account's 1,800 current followers, something like half signed up during last year's global economic summit, to figure out how the hell they were supposed to get to work while world leaders shaped our economy.
But it's at a moment like this -- with an event that we didn't have months of advance warning about -- that the account proves its worth. Here, for example, is a selection of posts in the first couple hours of today's rush hour:
The Twitter account is being managed by two people working in the Authority's public-affairs office: Ritchie himself, and an assistant.
The two have been "posting day and night," Ritchie tells me. It seems to be paying off: Other twitterers are retweeting the Authority's updates about individual routes, and some are even informing the Authority's PR staff about what's happening with the system. For example, Twitterer (and bus rider) Titus Swan recently let the agency know that
@PGHtransit 55m outboujnd to century3 walmart left mckeesport 659am bogged down in HEAVY traffic on lysle blvd expect delays for this run...
When you think about it, Twitter is a natural application for a mass-transit agency. Buses and light-rail are, after all, crowdsourced transportation. And one can imagine riders from the same neighborhood letting each other know about circumstances governing the route they share.
Still, Ritchie acknowledges, "It's been a learning curve." For one thing, the agency has a hard time answering questions about where an individual bus is.
"This morning someone tweeted at us, 'Where's my bus?'" Ritchie says. "I wanted to say, 'It's coming.'
"We want to provide customers with service, but we can't be customer service," he adds. "People want answers right away, and when you use Twitter, it creates the expectation that we should be able to deliver them." But it's not as if the Authority has hired additional customer service staff to handle online requests.
Ritchie says the authority has streamlined the procedure for handling online queries. But ultimately, it's going to cost money for the Authority to release the real-time information people need most.
"The buses have GPS installed," Ritchie points out -- so it's possible to pinpoint their location precisely. And the agency has a whole infrastructure to publish that information: Twitter, the Web, and plenty of busway and T stations that either have, or could be installed with, PA systems.
As Ritchie puts it, "What's missing is the thing in the middle" -- the link that connects information on specific buses with the Authority's communication infrastructure.
For example, T stations Downtown and elsewhere are fully equipped with an LED signage and PA system capable of disseminating information about the status of the system. Yet as recently as this morning, the system is still running an announcement that dates back to last fall. (In case you weren't aware, effective Nov. 22, the Fallowfield station fare booth will be closed.)
Ritchie says the agency has applied for grant money to provide real-time notification. But in the meantime, two public-affairs staffers will be trying to manage requests from thousands of Port Authority riders -- 140 characters at a time.