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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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DOTs, Toll Authorities Gain Fans on Social Media

In addition to transit agencies, state departments of transportation and regional highway authorities are finding social media platforms to be highly effective in communicating with the traveling public.

A recent survey of 32 state DOTs conducted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) found that the vast majority were using social media to communicate everything from travel alerts to job openings. Among the survey’s findings:

• Twenty-six (81 percent) of the DOTs that responded operated a Twitter account. Of those, 83 percent reported using it to relay traffic incidents, 80 percent for road closings and 63 percent for emergencies such as hurricanes and tornados.

• Forty-five percent had an active Facebook page.

• Three-quarters posted video on their website and 64 percent operated a YouTube channel. One-third offered podcasts online.

• Nearly half offered RSS feeds, 45 percent participated in LinkedIn, 10 percent ran a MySpace page and 7 percent hosted a blog.

“Using social media tools allows us to carry messages to constituents through the forums they already use rather than expecting them to seek us out,” said Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. “We have improved our agency’s credibility with the public, improved communication efficiency, and saved taxpayers money.”

Washington, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and California are among several states that run multiple Twitter accounts dedicated to specific highway routes or their geographic location. As of early June, the Washington State DOT, one of the first to use Twitter, had nearly 8,700 followers for its main account and 3,500 for another account that specializes in traffic reports for the Puget Sound area, where Seattle is located.

Their wide reach and affordability have also made social media platforms popular among the many regional authorities responsible for operating toll roads, bridges and tunnels. “Social media is a great, cost-effective way to provide our customers and stakeholders with information on our roads and projects,” said Kim Jackson, director of communications for the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), which launched a Facebook page last year. Taking a page out of the state DOTs’ playbook, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority maintains a Facebook page plus five Twitter accounts—one for each toll route it administers.

Many states including New Jersey are supplementing their online and dial-up 511 travel information services with Twitter alerts. The New Jersey alerts cover state highways, toll roads and New York-New Jersey bridges and tunnels.

Even transportation agencies that engage in planning rather than operations are getting into the game. These include metropolitan planning agencies (MPOs) that don’t have their names on highways or hundreds of buses but whose planning work impacts the public directly.

“We’re going to launch a regional indicators website … and we’ll use Facebook and Twitter to get the word out,” said Tom Garritano, communications director at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). “Even though it’s going to be a very data-rich website to help policymakers, planners and local officials … we think that the general public will find interesting things there, too.”

“Social media because of its constraints—Twitter with its character limit, Facebook you can post only three or four lines—provides opportunities to break down things that are information-heavy … into digestible bites,” added Anne Holub, CMAP’s web communications specialist.

—Josh Stephens, Karl Vilacoba

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