QR Codes in Transportation: The District DOT Shows the Possibilities

DC Department of Transportation QR Code

The District Department of Transportation is using QR codes to link residents with its Canopy Keepers program.

One of the more perplexing tech tools available to transportation communications programs is the QR code. This bar code technology offers the ability to embed a web site link within a two-dimensional Rorschach test-like image.

The promise of QR codes is great. A person with a smartphone can snap a photo of the QR code and instantly the phone’s browser opens to a link. Unfortunately, a few things have made QR codes more of a good idea than a good practice. First, the person we’re trying to reach has to know what a QR code is, and that person has to have a QR reader loaded onto their smartphone. Those are a couple of huge barriers. Second, the applications in which QR codes have been used have left me scratching my head. 

For instance, on an airplane I see QR codes throughout the in-flight magazine. Why? I can’t access the internet while on an airplane. Sure, I could grab the magazine and take it with me, or I could snap a photo of the QR code and maybe remember later what I was doing and why it mattered. But, really, that seems to be asking a lot of the customer. Or there are those companies that thought it was a good idea to put a QR code on a roadside billboard. Really? Distracted talking isn’t enough? We need people scanning QR codes behind the wheel? Really bad execution.

Too often, even after the person figures out the QR code and uses the QR reader correctly, the resulting web page is simply a the company’s home page. That company might have been better served just including their web address. For a QR code to be worthwhile, there should be something exceptional to reward the customer’s effort.

That brings us to the Washington DC Department of Transportation‘s new tree adoption program, which is now using QR codes to connect citizens with its Canopy Keepers program. DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration seeks out help from DC residents willing to care for newly planted trees. So far, the program has seen residents adopt more than 2,400 street trees in the District. Still, with more than 3,900 new trees expected to be planted in the city this year, the urban forestry program could really use citizens help with watering.

DDOT is hanging tags with QR codes on or near the newly planted trees. Residents can scan the QR codes and be connected directly to the form on the DDOT website to sign up to adopt the tree.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to join the ranks of Canopy Keepers,” said DDOT’s Chief Forester John Thomas in a DDOT news release. Absolutely right. The program connects people who are walking in their neighborhoods with the program that supports caring for their new trees.

Other notable uses for QR codes include Michigan DOT which uses them on its state highway map to link people to additional information about state attractions. Washington State DOT has used QR codes on project information signage posted in neighborhoods to link people to additional information about nearby construction projects.

QR codes are still an evolving technology. But it is exciting to see transportation agencies thinking strategically through their outreach programs, and using the right tool for the job.

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About Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.
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