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Published January 30th 2018

New Research: Using Social Data to Provide a Better Commute

Commuters take to social every day to complain about delays, services, and the often 'interesting' smells they experience. How can we use this data to make commuter life better?

Millions of commuters pile into Manhattan every day, nearly doubling the population of the city during the work week.

That’s more than 1.5 million customers for the MTA on a daily basis, giving the MTA plenty of opportunities to impress or disappoint. At $2.75 a Metrocard swipe, expectations build up – so can the MTA deliver?

How is the MTA meeting those expectations? Let’s take a look at one subway line to find out.

The Q train

We’ll be taking a look at mentions of the Q train, the line yours truly takes on a daily basis. As you can see, the Q cuts through Brooklyn and Manhattan, operating between Coney Island all the way in the south of Brooklyn, to 96th Street on the Upper East Side.

Talking about The Q

Building a query pulled almost 8,000 mentions of the Q train over the course of a few months. Here’s what we found.

Mentions of the Q train were predictably higher during the work week.

And, also predictably, during rush hour both in the mornings and evenings.

Mentions also spiked at random intervals, coinciding with signal issues and mechanical problems resulting in delays. Ultimately, commuters took to Twitter to voice either extreme satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the MTA’s performance.

And as we can see here in this sentiment analysis, the majority of commuters are rather unimpressed with the Q’s performance.

Commuters’ top complaints

There’s a couple of things ticking off Q train commuters.

The biggest complaint was delays, caused by signal problems, track maintenance, or sick passengers, resulting in longer and significantly more annoying commutes. But what peeved people off the most was the lack of communication from the MTA about these delays.

Most mentions about delays were from commuters looking for an explanation because they hadn’t heard or seen any announcements from their train’s conductor about it.

Delays also caused three other commuter complaints: being stuck in tunnels or on the Manhattan bridge, being jostled around as the train started and stopped abruptly, as well as causing crowded trains and subway platforms.

Folks weren’t too keen on that subway stink either. Here are 20 colorful ways commuters described the Q train smell:

  1. Urine
  2. Warm pee
  3. “Straight up port a potty”
  4. Tuna
  5. Wet dog
  6. Musty
  7. Cleaner solution
  8. Air conditioning
  9. “Air conditioner sweat”
  10. Hard boiled egg fart
  11. The subway
  12. A Zoo
  13. The inside of a shoe after working out
  14. Steamed corn
  15. A Big Mac
  16. “Loud af”
  17. Vomit
  18. Nail polish
  19. Raw shrimp
  20. Chickens

And finally, commuters aren’t too pleased with the irregularity of the air conditioning and heating systems, never seeming to match up with the weather.

Who’s to blame?

The NYC subway literally runs on a pre-WWII era signal system, which contributes to the delays commuters face on a daily basis; fewer trains are able to operate in the system at any given time compared to a modern signal system.

The politicians that oversee the MTA’s budget are ultimately responsible for addressing this issue, but there’s been some debate over who’s really responsible for fixing the subway system: NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, or Chairman of the MTA Joe Lhota.

Commuters have strong opinions on this matter, assigning most of their blame to Governor Cuomo.

Let’s just say commuters aren’t happy with any of them.

The MTA is trying, and we can appreciate that

The MTA has rolled out several customer service measures recently that are designed to make commuters’ lives easier. Countdown clocks at Q train stations letting commuters know when the next train is arriving, as well as an accompanying website and app were rolled out. Folks had high hopes.

Unfortunately, frequent delays have caused the clocks and app to show inaccurate arrival  times, leaving commuters frustrated.

Speaking from personal experience, as a frequent user of the app, I have noticed some inaccuracies lately, but overall I’ve been happy with it.

The overwhelmingly negative sentiment surrounding the countdown clocks just goes to show that commuters will talk about the MTA online mostly when they feel the need to share strong opinions about it.

How the MTA can use this information

Based off this social data surrounding the Q train, the MTA can identify exactly what issues commuters care most about, and work to prioritize fixing those problems.

Obviously, overhauling the ancient signal system should be the number one priority, but that is a project that will take a while to come to fruition.

In the meantime, the MTA should work to improve communication with commuters about the cause of delays. Commuters want explanations for why they’re stuck on the Manhattan bridge for 20 minutes, or in a tunnel, or why their Q train turned into an R train all of a sudden.

The MTA should also fix the accuracy of the countdown clocks, making sure that arrival times are adjusted in the event of delays.

Finally, if nothing else, someway, somehow, address the subway stink. Thanks, @MTA.

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