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May 10, 2018, 8 a.m.
Audience & Social

Mad about your commute? There’s a Facebook group for that (sorry, it’s in Sweden, not NYC)

“The public statistics from the Swedish transportation company didn’t show significant delays, and the official numbers didn’t give us a true picture of the situation.”

Jens Pettersson was hearing it at home, from his wife, and at work, from his coworkers and from readers: The commute from Uppsala, Sweden’s fourth-largest city, into Stockholm, was getting worse. What they reported — train delays, not enough seats — didn’t match the this-is-fine story that the public railways were telling.

Pettersson is the managing editor at Upsala Nya Tidning (UNT), the newspaper that covers Uppsala. Around the same time that commuting woes were building, the paper’s traffic from Facebook was declining (a now-familiar story). In December, UNT launched an experiment to try to help solve both problems: UNT Pendlingskollen (translation: UNT Commuter Checkup), a Facebook group where people who commute by bus and train can share their experiences, and UNT can find new issues to report on. “We wanted to create something that could give us better knowledge of the situation for commuters, since the public statistics from the Swedish transportation company [SJ] didn’t show significant delays, and the official numbers didn’t give us a true picture of the situation,” Pettersson said. There are about 15,000 Stockholm commuters in Uppsala, and the Facebook group has grown to 1,130 members.

Reading through English translations of the posts on UNT Pendlingskollen, I was struck by the range of issues that people posted about — not just delays, crowded trains, and broken toilets, but the etiquette of listening in on fellow commuters’ phone conversations about their jobs (“What happens on the train stays on the train, right? Is there any unwritten rule not to listen?”), or even just posting about their days at work after a train is delayed. “The situation for commuters has been really disastrous,” Pettersson said. “They didn’t know if they were going to make it to work in the morning or get back in the afternoon. People tell stories about never being able to book an appointment or a meeting in the early part of the day; they worry about making it to pick their children up at school.”

UNT staffers use the group to gather ideas, post polls and questions, and share UNT articles about public transportation issues. Local politicians have joined the group and have begun pressing the government railway company on how it will address them. (One of the railway’s communications directors also briefly joined the group and began answering reader questions, Pettersson said. But the commuters “gave him such a hard time that all of a sudden he just disappeared and didn’t answer anymore.”) The railway company’s press secretary recently called UNT to set up an interview to explain to readers how the company plans to improve; so far, it’s adding 400 seats on each train during peak hours, with a goal of increasing seats by 1,000, and also plans to pull railcars from other lines in Sweden. “That’s not something we’re used to — them actually giving a response to the coverage we’ve done, calling us, trying to make some time to talk,” Pettersson said.

UNT is also thinking about similar Facebook groups it could launch; the top idea so far is biking. “There are a lot of feelings and tensions between those driving cars and those going by bike,” Pettersson said.

Audience engagement can be a mushy science, but Pettersson said that UNT has gotten a lot of pageviews on the transportation-related articles it posts to the Facebook group. And “we can be sure that we have built a better relationship with commuters,” he said. Twenty or thirty years ago, he pointed out, everyone read Upsala Nya Tidling; “we knew for sure that we were important for people.”

These days, that’s no longer a given. But “the members of the group know for sure that UNT is taking their daily life problems very seriously,” he said. “They have not missed that. We have strengthened our relationship with them.”

POSTED     May 10, 2018, 8 a.m.
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