Talking Transportation: From ‘Pothole Palooza’ to the Tweeting Pothole

In 2009, the District Department of Transportation began what, at the time, was a fairly novel way of interacting with the public over the state of infrastructure. What became known as “Pothole Palooza” was quite brilliant. The folks at DDOT told the public to “tweet” photos and the location of potholes and someone with the city would be out to fix it within 72 hours.

The response was immediate and immediately successful. The public responded so well that in 2015, the District announced that it had fixed more than 36,000 potholes during its annual spring campaigns. You can actually see the results and track repairs on a DC DOT map.

Meanwhile, AdWeek reported that a public relations firm took the concept a step further, installing devices in potholes throughout the Panama City, Panama that, when run over, sent protest tweets to the city’s public works department. The partnership with a highly rated TV news program resulted in the repair of hundreds of potholes. Here’s a video summary:

These two case studies highlight an observation brought forth in a report, “Mobile Messages: Moving People to Support Transportation.” The report, which used a variety of research techniques to study effective transportation communication messages, found that “While DOT leads and industry professionals are consumed by transportation issues all day, every day, it can be easy to forget that most members of the public do not have transportation at the front of their minds on a daily basis.”

Indeed! One of the highest values of the traveling public, according to the research, was the ability to easily and inexpensively get from one place to the other. People want the system to work and not get in their way.

That means that mostly, the only time a transportation customer thinks about the merits and health of the transportation infrastructure they’re using is when something breaks.

Like a pothole. Or a bridge. Or a door on a subway door that gets stuck open.

Red Line, 11:15 am. Between Metro Center and Farragut North. (Via John) Posted by Unsuck DC Metro on Sunday, May 31, 2015

And at those moments, when the reality of the system is presented to the customer, that those of us in the transportation communications community have the opportunity to engage.

Granted, some folks are going to angry and frustrated.

People have enough on their mind and they don’t really want to have to think about infrastructure. But creatively push into those moments and you’ll come out the other side with a more educated customer base, a more engaged user community and maybe, just maybe, more support for investing in infrastructure.

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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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