Photo courtesy of Flickr user d26b73 under a Creative Commons license.

Twitter has become a weirdly therapeutic place for commiserating about public transit. The format is practically tailor-made for quick, bitter thoughts about the latest broken train or sweaty seat mate. In the middle of a miserable morning commute, there's something satisfying about retaining the power, at the very least, to tell the whole Internet about it.

To wit, from actual tweets about public transit in a new paper that finds that many agencies have a worse rap on social media than even the IRS:


"Planning and Social Media: A Case Study of Public Transit and Stigma on Twitter," L. Schweitzer in the Journal of the American Planning Association

The paper, by USC's Lisa Schweitzer, found in nearly 64,000 tweets that many large U.S. transit systems attract more moaning on Twitter than local police departments, some social welfare programs and even unpopular airlines.

The saving grace for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and the systems in New York, San Francisco and Chicago: They're at least more well-liked online than Osama bin Laden:


"Planning and Social Media: A Case Study of Public Transit and Stigma on Twitter," L. Schweitzer in the Journal of the American Planning Association

To calculate this, Schweitzer used an algorithm that automatically scanned tweets mentioning transit service in 10 big-city systems for language including positive (congratulations, thanks, upgrade) and negative opinion words (wtf, delay, crowd, pervy, weirdo, transitfail). This method admittedly has its limitations. Algorithms aren't great at picking up on sarcasm. And, as Schweitzer writes in the Journal of the American Planning Association, "It is not clear that 'I lurve Tri-Met!' is more or less positive than 'I love Tri-Met' or 'I love love love Tri-Met!'"

But, as you can tell in the above sample, sentiment comes through pretty clearly. To compare how these agencies fare, Schweitzer relied on two groups of controls: one, using celebrities (William Shatner!) and villains (the Westboro Baptist Church) to establish the extremes of public sorrow and praise, the other comparing transit to other public and private services (airlines, police departments, food stamps and "welfare queens").

The differences between transit agencies don't particularly align with data about actual quality of service. Agencies with worse on-time performance, for example, don't necessary do worse on Twitter. But Schweitzer did find that agencies that are bad at Twitter itself — that simply use the platform to blast bad news about delays, instead of interacting with riders — fare worse in this analysis.

The broadly ugly results say something about the state of our transit agencies, but also about ourselves — a lot of the griping here wasn't about transit service itself, but about other people riding it. Schweitzer found a startling amount of racist, sexist and class slurs in these tweets, much of it even more prolific than what was directed at social welfare programs. Here's Schweitzer with a less amusing takeaway:

In fact, if racial, ageist, and other slurs against patrons are removed from the tweets, airlines and public transit agencies have statistically indistinguishable sentiment scores on social media. Transit advocates have long maintained that transit is viewed with a social stigma, and the evidence from social media suggests that advocates may be right.