BART gets the Whole Digital Interweb Thing

A little while ago, I sat down with Melissa Jordan who is the Senior Web Producer for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system here in the San Francisco Bay Area. For those who don’t know, this is one of many Metro-esque systems that allows for inter-city connections within our compact corner of California. Without it, we’d be pretty hosed as it moves 375,000 people a day. While quite small compared to other transit systems, when you think about one third of a million more cars being on our few bridges that lead in to San Francisco, you realize that the BART fills a rather crucial link in people moving.
That being the case, they could pretty much sit back, loosen the ties and just make sure the system keeps running on time (it’s one of the few system that really and truly sticks to its schedules). But no, BART has shown that they are one of the few transit agencies that have not only taken a dive in to the whole social media/web scene, but done so in a way that I feel is quite successful.
One might think that this being a government agency, it is taken a staff of 50 to do the work of 5, but in this case it is actually just a staff of two. Melissa is one of those two and one of her main jobs is handling the Twitter feed–twitter.com/sfbart. She joined the web “team” alongside her boss last year in June and has been twitting along happily, filling us in lost rats and the like. Let me just add that there is already an alert system to let people know of issues on the system via SMS or email, so Twitter is mainly an added layer of usability that the BART folks thought would be part of a larger web outreach program.
The time that she joined was a rather big time as far as the web and BART went. They launched a redesign of their site that was meant to be more warm and human; inviting in the visitor to the site as opposed to being an unapproachable site which you find at other transit agencies in the San Francisco region. Don’t get me wrong, sites such as those for Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, SF Muni, and AC Transit all do the job they need to do, but that’s about it. Those agencies stopped just past the bare minimum. The BART site on the other hand is one that I feel is a good Web 2.0 site. Sure, as things in the web go, maybe it’s a tad dated with the rounded corners as opposed to the lifted drop shadows that are all the rage right now, but at the same time, it’s friendly. It’s also promotes user-involvement. As Melissa pointed out, that user photo on the front is from a rider. It’s not a stock photo. Little touches like that are what make a site more than just an informational portal, taking them to the level of being truly interactive as we sorta meant this web thing to be in the first place.
The website took many years to come about to its current state and I suppose that that is one of the things that defines the approach of BART towards the web. Some might just say it’s bureaucracy at work, but I think it’s a result of careful thinking because they seem to be doing things right as opposed to retail companies which just keep throwing stuff at their site until something sticks. Even Google is guilty of that behavior. But this thinking at BART, while possibly aggravating to those watching the progress from the outside, is very smart. For instance they have moved in to Twitter slowly due to it working quite poorly when they first started twitting last year, as you don’t want people to start relying on something that is unreliable.
You feel a bit of this slowly dipping in to the water with the blog as well. It’s not heavily promoted but it is definitely there. Of course, when you don’t have open comments on articles (they need to be able to approve them to have them available which they can’t just yet), it does take away a lot of the interactivity and immediacy of a format like a blog. So, the articles come across more as a basic news feed than a blog like most people are used to. But it is effective in promoting news in a format that is more lasting than just having a Twitter account.
The next logical question in all of this is that if you have a website, Twitter, and a blog, then surely you must have some kind of presence on Facebook? Of course and that seemed to be approached in much the same fashion as the other digital initiatives: methodically planned for a fast moving medium. Melissa admitted that their Facebook page is rather bland and boring and I would agree. This isn’t that surprising as Facebook pages are pretty lame overall and tend to exist only because companies and entities feel that they have to have one yet aren’t really sure as to why. But part of the reason that the page is quite scaled back is due to a large degree on the date they launched it, December 31st, 2008. For those who might not realize the gravity of this date, let me remind you that there was an incident with a BART cop shooting an unarmed, restrained passenger on New Year’s Eve. When you have something like that happen, which does nothing but engender bad will towards an agency, things like Facebook often get put on the back burner.
But as Melissa pointed out several times, BART’s main goal is to run trains and run them on time. This is why they have no web developers on staff and outsource the whole technical side of the web endeavors. Some might wonder as to why there is any of these endeavors at all. Wouldn’t that money be better spent on new train cars?
Some might easily say yes, but they forget that public transportation isn’t such a simple thing for Americans, even in as “green” a space as San Francisco. Most of us don’t just turn to it as the regular choice in deciding how Point B shall be connected to Point A. This is a good deal of the reason why BART is pushing the web and social media to work for them. They are still working on a great degree of outreach and promotion, trying to maintain a constant growth in ridership. myBART is part of this as well and they work to try and get more people in to the system, especially during off peak times. So the moral in all of this is that if you need to know anything about BART, they’ve put it on the web for you. Going to a weeknight event? Hit up Bart. Need to know train status? Check the Twitter or sign up for the updates via SMS or email. Running something like a BarCamp? Tell people how to get to the location using BART and other transit options. This last one is something it seems no one is willing to do for BarCamps as everyone ends up driving.
It’s all there. It’s just a matter of using it. Oh and get yourself a Translink card if you live in the SF Bay Area. While it isn’t running on BART just yet, the day is coming very soon and it has to be one of the best things to come about in public transportation since the agencies all set up websites thus allowing me to stop carrying five different schedules in my bag. Ah blessed interweb, how we love you and your series of tubes so wellz. Oh and public transit. That’s good stuff too.
BART gets the Whole Digital Interweb Thing

2 Replies to “BART gets the Whole Digital Interweb Thing”

    1. Seems about the same as BART, but with less fans, unless I’m missing something.

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