Five Minutes With Lisa Schweitzer

by Jeremy Loudenback

This year, the Bedrosian Center welcomed several new faculty members, including Lisa Schweitzer, an assistant professor in the Sol Price School of Public Policy whose research addresses transportation, urban environments, transportation, and social justice. With an interest in examining how governance and policy making influence the behaviors and decision making, Schweitzer’s recent projects evaluate the distribution of social and economic opportunities and the location of environmental hazards. She also maintains a prolific and thought-provoking blog at lisaschweitzer.com, where she turns her omnivorous gaze on topics related to urbanism, media, and academia. Dr. Schweitzer recently sat down with the Bedrosian Center for a talk about recent research about governance, Twitter as an area of public space, and changing prevailing narratives about public transit.

You’ve been preparing some research on the role of social justice as it relates to social media and transit agencies. (The manuscript examines some unsolicited comments about public transit on Twitter to observe customer feelings about transit services.) What role does governance play in your work?

It influences governance in some really significant ways. We know media has influence at various different levels on people’s beliefs and attitudes about what’s true in the world and the values attached to those facts. It’s been very clear that what people see on screen, at least on TV in particular, influences how they think about stuff, but social media, I think, is a challenge because there isn’t as much research on it in terms of its influence. But social media has the power to do any number of things in terms of influence. One is that you do have different types of producers creating content. You have institutions generating their own content. And then you have users creating content. And I think for influence, that’s very interesting. So all the sudden, you’ve got this social content, this social media content, that has these multiple and perhaps reinforcing or conflicting, we don’t know, avenues of influence over the way people think about issues. So one of the reasons why I think looking at transit on Twitter is so interesting is that in many respects I think planners are very innocent about the media. They don’t think about it as much as they should.

So what can we learn by looking at Twitter feeds of transit agencies?

So one of the things that I know about transit is that they are actually relatively careless about what they put out there. They put out a lot of service updates and not much else. And that’s not necessarily the impression that they want to get. If you hold up a screen for example with just MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority), [you’ll see messages] like, “we’re late, we’re late, we’re late. And then they’ll be like 17 users saying, “you late bastards, you late bastards.” For a person just perusing that screen, it’s a very strong message, which is that the service is not very good.

Do you see any transit agencies trying to improve the way they work with Twitter?

I think SEPTA [Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority] is starting to step up. When I first started studying Twitter, SEPTA just let users own the feed, and now they are much more active about getting out there. But they’ve got problems; they’re a difficult organization to run. They’ve got a really obstreperous union. They have a very large service area. They have a not particularly affluent user group. Public transit is not easy to manage in the United States. It’s just not.

How do you compare that with transportation agencies of other cities?

The New York Metro has its own set of problems, as well as DC Metro and BART; they are all difficult organizations because of the sort of fundamental problems of public management. But in terms of actual transit environments, they live in a very sort of a more fortunate world. Whereas I think Philadelphia and SETPA have a more difficult road. I mean, they’ve had a long, long history of difficult labor relations. The teamster companies out of Philadelphia were amongst the most obstreperous about refusing to allow black workers onto the sort of line of high-prestige positions. There were there was one strike and a lot of labor-management conflicts over that. They’re a tough organization to run. And their public image has suffered over the years.

What should transit agencies look to communicate as part of their Twitter feeds?

I’m interested in the ethics of public ethics of communication. So you don’t want to just shut people down. You’ve got to be interested in what your customers are saying. And they may have made very important things. They may also be little brats; this is the Yelp world that we live in. But for every, “you’re 30 seconds late” comment, there’s also somebody who is pointing out that there’s vomit on the seat. That’s the sort of thing that you do want to be hearing. And you don’t want to shut that down, but you also don’t want that to be the only thing in the feed. Because that’s not the only thing that your service is about. You also have great drivers. There may be some sourpusses in the group, but there are probably some drivers that the patrons love. Their faces should be out there, too. A conversation about the service that is more than just “late,” “broken,” “vomit,” “cold,” “hot,” and so on. You don’t want it to be the happy unicorn BS zone, but you also don’t want it to be just a sewer of hate either.

You’ve also examined the high level of sexist, racist, and classist slurs directed at transit patrons on Twitter and how transit agencies should deal with this.

A lot of complaints that come from passengers have to do with the service, but a lot of it also has to do with hate speak directed at other passengers. And that’s a problem. If you look at the way airline passengers, for example, talk about other airline passengers, they say unpleasant things, but they are very seldom couched in race and class terms. And I don’t think transit companies should put up with that.

I think people emboldened by the technology to not necessary think about what they’re writing as racist. And really what they’re writing is tremendously racist and tremendously classist, especially comments about women and comments about black women and their children. It’s horrendous. And it does come up when you do just a little search on MBTA, for example. And so that is stuff that I just don’t think [transit agencies] should allow to dominate their feed. You can’t control what people say, but you can make sure that that’s just one comment out of 70.

So what are the resources that could be in place to prevent that?

I think they need to be very explicit with getting their creative services people on board, the same people that are crafting their messages for metastatic ads on the bus and stuff like that. I think there are still people who are just not quite getting how important this kind of stuff is or how it works. They see it as, “Well, there’s just this stuff that comes with job.” They don’t see themselves as content creators, and they are. Like Twitter and blogs, this is where they are constructing a locus of interaction.

I think that we have a duty to ourselves to say, “No, public transit can be great.” And sometimes it is great. And sometimes it has problems. But you can either see it as something that you are a steward and a custodian of as a passenger as well as a provider, or you can treat it as a consumer good. But in those latter two cases, you cannot get the service you deserve. And the same is true of the former case, I think. Otherwise the narrative becomes, well, it’s a service for poor people. It’s a service for black people. It’s a service for “those people.” “I’ve got mine; I don’t need to support that because it’s not a service for me.” And that kind of fragmenting in the public sphere is something that disturbs me deeply.