Commute From Hell

What Social Data Can Tell Us About Public Transportation

If you’ve ever had to use public transportation in a major city, then you probably have an absurd tale or two about your traveling experiences. As we know, not all subway systems are created equal. In fact, many of the systems are still functioning on tracks created almost 200 years ago.
In February of 2015, Boston received enough snowfall to shut down the commuter rails and subway systems for days on end. The frustration of commuters was immense.
But was this conversation really as prominent as it seemed to Bostonians? Which cities have the most conversation volume concerning their subway systems? Which has the most positive conversation, which hosts the most frustration? We decided to analyze these top transportation discussions over the last 5 years to get a better understanding of who’s train experiences really are the worst.

Which Cities Have the Most Conversation About Public Transit?

In general, there’s a bias towards negative conversation, although both positive and negative discussions exist across all subway systems. This is likely due to the human nature: users speak up when they are frustrated, and don’t comment on their positive transit experiences.
The overall volume of public transportation conversation aligned with the volume of overall riders:
Here’s how it broke down for the last 5 years:

  1. New York City: 1.8M posts
  2. Boston: 1.6M
  3. Washington D.C.: 1.2M
  4. Chicago: 0.98M
  5. Philadelphia: 0.95M
  6. San Francisco 0.325M

There are highs and lows of conversation that unfold within each city, but the peak volumes usually tie to a period of time when the railway is closed or malfunctioning.

Effects of the Boston Blizzard of ‘15

Boston’s MBTA system was closed for a series of days in February 2015 due to the blizzards that took over the northeast for a period of 3 to 4 weeks. The city saw more snow in a month than it usually does in a full winter, and the subway systems suffered as a result.
This Boston blizzard conversation was the largest source of consumer discussion around public transportation in the last five years.
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Other Notable Events

Other events also created subway closures, some of them serious. In January 2015, Washington D.C. experienced problem with one of their third rails, which led to smoke filling one of their trains. Previous to that, Boston’s service was suspended due to the terrorist attacks during the Marathon bombings. Both of these closures were brief, while length of the weather related closing in Boston was obscure, causing more frustration and agitation among commuters. One thing is clear: Of all major events that provoked negative conversation (fare hikes, strikes, protests, service shut-downs, smoke in tunnel), the Boston blizzard and winter related discussion of 2015 was by far the largest.
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Finding the Humor

All the subway systems we analyzed have a larger portion of negative than positive conversations. Clearly, citizens typically voice their negative thoughts more than their positive associations with their subway experience. However, one of the positive features within that negative discussion is the camaraderie of rider frustrations. This Boston commuter community has at least offered a sense of humor during their frustrating experiences.

Analyzing the social conversations surrounding these public transport systems shows us that social media can help us understand how travelers express their thoughts about public transportation, and what areas of the country need the most support and improvement, according to those who use those systems.
For deeper insight into public service conversations over social, read our 3 Reasons Why Social Insights Matter for Non-Profits.

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