BART’s Righteous Tweetstorm Reminds Us Its Problems Are Our Fault
It’s the same heart-sinking cues for thousands of Bay Area commuters when they arrive at their San Francisco public transit station, ready to go home at the end of the day. Swamped crowds. Tired faces. And the public broadcast blaring over speakers, announcing yet another Bay Area Rapid Transit system delay. On Wednesday night, there was more of the same.
The latest culprit: A mysterious (though not dangerous) electrical issue on one stretch of track, causing voltage spikes that damaged the propulsion system on dozens of train cars. By last night, BART had pulled 50 cars out of service—out of 590. The same problem damaged 80 cars earlier this month, most of which have been repaired and returned to the tracks. The problem point is at the end of the Pittsburgh-Bay Point line, and service there has been suspended (BART is running shuttle buses to compensate). But the real issue is that when you have a system that’s already overcrowded, cutting 10 percent of capacity means causing serious delays—and doubling some passengers’ commute times.
In response, frustrated riders mashed thumbs onto digital keyboards, aiming their anger at the @SFBART Twitter account. Then, to their surprise, BART started tweeting back—and it came ready for a fight.
@shakatron BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.
— SFBART (@SFBART) March 17, 2016
The suddenly two-way conversation stretched on late into the night, as @SFBART tried to justify its overcrowding, equipment problems, and frequent delays. 140 characters at at time, it talked about aging infrastructure, flawed planning, and budget shortfalls. The berated system stood up for itself by shifting the blame.
And most of its arguments were totally true, says Ratna Amin, director of transportation policy at the Bay Area planning nonprofit SPUR. Since construction of the system began in the 1960s, there have been few updates to the infrastructure, and a lot of the system equipment in place has never been replaced, Amin says. There are limits to BART’s capacity, it needs more trains, and its controls are in sore need of an update. “BART was cutting-edge when it was built,” she says. “But being cutting-edge only lasts so long.”
Amin does point out one weak point in the self-righteous tweetstorm: the claim that San Francisco couldn’t have planned for growth better. “There’s a saying that today was yesterday’s tomorrow,” she says. “Because we didn’t plan for today we have this problem of having to plan for tomorrow at the same time.”
The sentiment behind BART’s bout of self-defense, however, is both valid and important. Sure, the system’s a mess. But the public should realize that’s a result of the choices all Bay Area residents have made. “Mass public transit is an ongoing series of choices,” Amin says. “They’re political and public choices that we all have to make and own.” A lot of transportation spending choices, including taxes, local funding measures, and packages of investments, are voted on by the public, she says. Other decisions are made by county-level commissions and board members, who are elected into their positions by residents. “BART is a somewhat democratic agency,” Amin says.
@juliakite Rails, tunnels, power cabling and substations, fare gates, fault line creep mitigation… it adds up.
— SFBART (@SFBART) March 17, 2016
Whatever the causes, BART’s right to talk about its problems. It’s “something we’ve needed from a lot of our institutions and agencies,” Amin says. “There’s a decision making process, and if you don’t have information, you’re not going to make good choices, informed choices. I think people are realizing, ‘Oh, we made some choices, and we didn’t know we were making them.’” And now the system is falling apart.
@SFBART Goes Viral
BART’s change in attitude wasn’t based on a policy change, or the recommendation of a public relations consultant. It was the work of 27-year-old Taylor Huckaby, one of the agency’s communications officers, who was helming the agency’s Twitter account on Wednesday night. Huckaby has experience in crisis communications. He was public affairs liaison for the British consulate in Los Angeles, and the new media director for Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial re-election campaign in Louisiana (before switching political parties, he notes).
In the year he’s worked for BART, Huckaby has sat in countless meetings discussing criticisms leveled at the system for its inefficiencies. “We would go, ‘Oh my God look at all these people that are saying XYZ, these horrible things about BART. If only they knew, if only they knew,’” he says. “My attitude every time I came to work here was, ‘Why shouldn’t they know? Why don’t we tell them?’”
Huckaby kept the candid conversation going for about six hours, shooting off explanations addressing overcrowding, equipment problems, inefficiencies due to aging infrastructure, and bad planning. “Government tends to be overly cautious—to a fault—in order to prevent themselves from giving the wrong answer and then looking incompetent,” he says. “But ironically, saying nothing and giving, as [Vox] said, ‘anodyne responses,’ makes us look incompetent anyway.”
At BART, he says, the typical attitude toward Twitter is that it’s a gaffe minefield, where a misstep could easily embarrass the agency. But he was sure things could be different. “It was much easier to show by example what good community curation looks like,” he says. “I didn’t get any permission. I kind of just unilaterally did it.” He created a hashtag, #ThisIsOurReality, which started trending. The story was picked up by Gawker, Vox, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times—all of which praised the agency for openly addressing its shortcomings.
Thankfully for Huckaby, BART’s higher-ups approved of the rogue policy change. His boss commended him for “single-handedly” turning the tide of “pretty much abuse” into an actual conversation. “It was exciting to be able to start a conversation about infrastructure,” Huckaby says, “because infrastructure is just not sexy—unless something is broken or brand new.” And he says that kind of conversation taps into larger forces and concerns about crumbling public infrastructure, especially in this election year.
“People are saying, ‘Things are falling apart. I’m paying taxes, and where’s my return on my investment? Why isn’t government working?’” says Huckaby. “For a long time, government agencies have just said nothing, and allowed this narrative of ‘government does nothing’ to take over.”
BART may be dysfunctional, but it’s a part of a democratic system. Directing the public’s anger over its shortcomings into action could have a real impact. “I think we have the opportunity and the tools at our disposal to reverse that message,” Huckaby says. “Responsive, democratic, conversational government is important, and I believe in it.”
And it only took a 27-year-old millennial giving voice to a federal-agency Twitter account to remind us we should believe in it, too.