At 8:44 p.m. on Sept. 9, 2017, a user named @rootedpotato alerted @TransLink on Twitter that there was an unattended bag of lettuce on his bus.
“Is there anyway that the owner could collect it?” wrote @rootedpotato.
Lance Alden, who works with the transit authority’s customer information service, was on the receiving end of the message.
“Are we really going to fill out a form for lettuce?” said Alden.
@rootedpotato continued tweeting live lettuce updates.
“a patron has now tied the plastic bag with the head of lettuce onto a pole at the front of the bus”
“I'm beginning to realize it’s iceberg lettuce, not an actual head of lettuce. This is an important detail #truth”
“it disappeared when I wasn’t looking... I think someone stole it #nighttheft #smoothcriminal #thrilling #vegetablethief”
With the drama concluded — 12 minutes from start to finish — Alden decided to chime in:
“That’s what happens when you leaf your lettuce unattended.”
@rootedpotato was delighted.
“Well done,” he tweeted. “You’ve made my night!”
Every question you ask TransLink from “Where’s my bus?” to “Did you find my backpack?” arrives at an office in north Surrey, where Alden and other members of the customer information services team hunt for answers and dispatch assistance. (If you tweet them with a bit of whimsy, you might get some in return.) This office is also where alerts are sent out, like the notices about service disruptions you get via text, and the notifications you see on screens at transit stations.
On an elevated platform in the centre of the office is a small fort of screens, home to the people signing off on tweets, using their own initials — ^sk, ^jkd, ^kv and the rest of the team. One screen has a live map of trains on SkyTrain tracks. Beneath it is a radio that tunes in to chatter from attendants and SkyTrain control.
Outside the fort are desks where people answer calls to TransLink’s information line at 604-953-3333. One screen counts the number of calls and online live chats that day. Last Thursday, there were 1,281 calls and 71 live chats by 2:15 p.m.
“Not even that busy,” said Alden, who is pleased that the season of sudden snow days is coming to an end.
It’s a small but bustling hive, with 11 staff handling the queries funnelled to the office from the region’s passengers, and ridership is consistently on the rise. TransLink’s record month was last October with about 39.7 million boardings. And over time, the team’s come to have a better and better understanding of commuters’ habits.
Robert Willis, the manager of social media and digital content, says a key advantage for the team is the ability to communicate digitally with the public “as humans,” which TransLink executives granted them early on.
“We’re lucky, because not many organizations are able to do that,” said Willis.
It’s a strategy that brands and companies have slowly started to embrace, from @kfc to @netflix. Last month, @yvrairport darkly joked about comedian Nathan Fielder’s show being cancelled; Fielder, who appeared to be shocked by the brazenness, replied, “OK, this is too far I think.”
“Different social media properties are like different languages,” said Willis. “It’s speaking to people like they like to be spoken to. So we mimic a lot of the language that’s already out there.”
TransLink uses Facebook for public engagement. Instagram is for images and storytelling.
Last week on Pi Day, March 14, Willis and his team gave out pie to passengers of the 314 bus — the first three digits of pi — and documented it for @TransLink’s Instagram story feed.
Twitter is treated by passengers as a public 911 for minor and major emergencies and for general transit chatter. People have become so reliant on TransLink’s Twitter account that they sometimes post personal information in a public exchange, which the customer team tells them not to do — phone instead.
The 2010 Winter Olympics got TransLink using Twitter to help tourists unfamiliar with Metro Vancouver. It was only four years old at the time, but proved to be such an effective channel that passengers leaned on it even after the Olympics.
“It became our primary service delivery channel,” said Willis. “People just kept following and following.”
Playing detective and baton handoffs
Willis, who’s been working at TransLink for eight years, and Alden, almost nine years, have noticed that as social media has become more universal, more passengers are helping each other out and taking an active role in improving the system.
On Twitter, passengers have answered questions from other passengers intended for TransLink and “most of the time, they get it right,” said Alden. The majority are about transit service, and sometimes tweeters share picture evidence of construction or traffic accidents holding up buses.
This habit of self-reporting also applies to messes.
“We actually had somebody the other day who tweeted us that they had thrown up on the SkyTrain,” said Alden. “I really respect that! They told us what car number it was on and we phoned it up to control right away.”
And if the team notices a pattern of complaints, like multiple people saying a particular bus is always full, they’ll hunt for the problem. Transportation planners are always interested in feedback on routes, said Alden.
In 2014, a man started a hashtag campaign called #555passup to draw attention to the crowded 555 bus between Langley and Burnaby passing his stop in Surrey.
“Within a week, enough people complained that [TransLink] said, OK, we’re putting extra buses on right now.” Tweaks are common, but not usually that quickly, said Alden, which is why feedback is so important.
#555passup, shortest Twitter campaign ever.— Donald Nguyen (@Donald4U) September 12, 2014
A detective mindset is also needed to track down lost property, which includes “pretty much anything you can think of,” said Willis. “There’s prosthetic legs, tons of canes, there’s teeth, there’s eyeglasses.”
But even if a passenger can tell the customer team what time they boarded and what bus route they were on, finding the exact vehicle can be a challenge.
“What if the bus was late?” said Alden.
Found items are eventually brought to TransLink’s lost and found at the Stadium–Chinatown SkyTrain Station, but there are times when the customer team is able to co-ordinate something like a baton handoff in a sprint relay.
“The other day I had somebody who had $7,000 in their wallet,” said Alden. “They just arrived in the country and they lost it.” He remembers the man being surprisingly level-headed.
The bus wasn’t returning in the man’s direction, so Alden arranged for a road supervisor to retrieve the wallet from the driver and return it to the customer.
Right before Christmas, Alden received report of a different kind of lost property.
“Not a lot of money, but her groceries!” he said. “Groceries I wouldn’t say are super high priority. But it was near Christmas, and she just couldn’t believe she did it. So I thought, you know what, I’m going to call control just to see what they can do.”
They found the groceries on the bus, which was at Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain. But the bus was done for the night and heading back to the transit centre.
The operator told Alden he’d see what he could do.
It turned out that there was a road supervisor in the area, so the operator asked him to grab the groceries from the bus. The road supervisor then put the groceries on another bus that was heading back in the woman’s direction.
“She was just blown away,” said Alden. “Even I was! I didn’t expect them to go that far for someone’s groceries. I was talking to the operator, and he’s like, if we have time and we can make somebody’s day, why not?”
Last year, Alden saw multiple people tweeting @TransLink to track down a particular SkyTrain, but not because they lost something on board — the new Mark III train, nicknamed “Marky,” being tested and they wanted to know where it was so that could watch it pass by.
“You weren’t even allowed to board it,” said Alden, who identifies as a transit nerd himself. “It’s neat to see people actually that passionate about it.”
Whether it’s moments of love like this or moments of hate, the communications have allowed Alden and his team a close watch on commuters’ close relationship with transit.
This week, the customer team received a complaint about “Mark 1 trains baking us like an oven,” a thank you for picking up someone in Cloverdale, a suggestion to fill train cars with Pomeranians to increase ridership and an image of someone enjoying a taro bubble tea with their Chinese takeout on the Canada Line.
And tonight, like every night, @TransLink will bid you adieu at 12:30 a.m. for a five-hour sleep.
In the words of ^jkd, the rhyme-loving tweeter of the customer information services team: “May the moon’s silvery beams brighten your dreams.”
Note: This story was updated on March 22, 2019 at 3 p.m. to correct the name of Robert Willis at TransLink. A previous version of this story mistakenly named him as Robert Gillis. The writer regrets the error.
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