Nearly every day, MBTA riders come across anything from cracked columns, loose flooring tiles, and leaky ceilings. While the T’s website has options to report problems inside stations, a small army of commuters is increasingly turning to a different medium to air their concerns: Twitter.
By tagging the MBTA and attaching photos and videos, riders hope to call attention to problems they encounter — not just to other riders but also to the transit agency itself.
Most of the problems only cause minor disruptions for commuters. But the disrepair undermines confidence in the T, which was beset with serious incidents this year — including a Green Line crash in July and a Back Bay escalator malfunction in September.
Evan Foss, a 37-year-old Newton resident and self-described public transit enthusiast, has been monitoring the MBTA’s maintenance issues since 2011, when he noticed a dangerously rusted staircase at the Science Park/West End Green Line station. Foss uses the Green and Red lines to get to work, and though he regularly attended the T’s public meetings to report his concerns, he began noticing that his comments weren’t always copied over into the public meeting notes.
So Foss created a Twitter account (@scribblesonnapk) in July 2018 to ensure that his concerns weren’t overlooked. “It occurred to me that if I wasn’t saying something in a public space that people actually saw regularly. . . it was never going to get heard,” Foss said.
@MBTA This column at Hynes is cracking more. I am concerned some amount of concrete is going to shear off and fall on someone. Please no more zipties, do a real repair and fix the leaks causing it. @GBHNews @bobWGBH @BostonGlobe @elizabethrkoh @chipgoines https://t.co/Lx71TaVfNZ— scribblesonnapkins (@scribblesonnapk) October 11, 2021
July Escobar, an East Boston resident, began paying closer attention to MBTA maintenance concerns issues over the summer, after a Boston University professor fell to his death through a rusted, closed-off staircase near the JFK/UMass stop on the Red Line.
Recently released records and e-mails show that several government agencies, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, had known about safety issues regarding the stairs and missed several opportunities to fix them. Ultimately, MassDOT said the stairs were its responsibility.
Escobar, who uses that stop to get to class at UMass Boston, said the condition of a different staircase at the station drove her to report the issue over Twitter for the first time on Nov. 19.
“You can see little corners of the stairs chipping off, and then once you’re on the stairs, you feel them moving a little bit,” she said. “I just got so frustrated because when it gets wet, those stairs are extremely slippery. And it got to a point where I felt so unsafe going up those stairs, I just had to reach out.”
Like Foss, she took to Twitter (@july_escobarx3) to report her observations, tweeting at the MBTA’s official account for the first time. The process seemed easier than trying to report through more official channels, she said.
“I can visit the [MBTA’s] website but I don’t know who to contact and then if you try to call, you get an automatic system,” said Escobar, who is 21. “I felt like Twitter was probably the fastest and quickest way.”
Rashaun Martin, a 43-year-old East Boston resident, also found Twitter to be a more straightforward way of reporting issues than calling the hotline or using the website. He has been using his Twitter account (@RashaunMartin) to deliver feedback to the MBTA for years, often regarding the bus stop in Day Square, which he says bus drivers frequently pass over. He makes a point to alert the T when drivers skip the stop, even when he is not personally affected by the oversight.
“It’s happened enough where I just keep an eye on it,” he said, noting that students from Excel Academy often gather at that stop to catch the bus home, and that there aren’t many alternate forms of transportation in the area. “It’s just a natural inclination now that whenever I see the 112 or the 121 bus leave Wood Island to head to Wellington or to Maverick respectively, I always look to see if they [reach the stop].”
Though Martin regularly provides critiques and suggestions for how the T could improve, he is also quick to provide positive feedback about the MBTA’s progress, such as when he sees the new Orange Line trains.
“I’m passionate about the T, I support it, I’ve ridden it my entire life,” he said. “My hope is just to continue to see it improve. I think there’s so much potential, and I think a lot more people want to ride the T, and they would ride the T if it works.”
Reporting issues with the MBTA is not the main purpose of Escobar or Martin’s Twitter accounts. But riders like Foss dedicate their profiles to broadcasting information about the T.
Foss, Escobar, and Martin are not alone. MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said that about 95 percent of all online discussions about the MBTA and its services occur over social media. The T receives about 1,500 messages each week on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn, she said, and the agency logs each complaint before forwarding it on to the appropriate department. The MBTA also uses social media to announce delays, maintenance issues, and upcoming projects.
We're #BuildingABetterT by improving rider experience with real-time ETAs. Thanks to solar-powered electronic ink (E Ink) signs, we can now bring train arrival times + service info to more Green Line surface stations that otherwise lack the needed power.https://t.co/Lan57nrsMU pic.twitter.com/8N1M0Z2bFC— MBTA (@MBTA) December 1, 2021
Complaints made on Twitter don’t always receive a response from the agency, though the T says it does its best to respond to as many as possible. And while some issues can be resolved quickly, others can take days or even weeks to resolve, leading to further frustration — for riders and MBTA employees alike.
Foss, who since 2018 has regularly updated his Twitter and YouTube feeds with photos and videos of problems he’s noticed, said MBTA employees sometimes send him photos of issues they have encountered. They may fear retaliation they would face if they reported or posted the photos themselves, he said.
“There’s a lot of very dedicated, very intelligent people who work for the T who would genuinely like it to run better. They’re talking to me out of frustration, and also because they are, a lot of the time, thrilled to have somebody who’s willing to accept that it’s not their fault.”
Though Foss admits that serving as an MBTA watchdog is not what he would prefer to do with his time, he feels a responsibility toward the workers and the riders to keep reporting the problems. He’s prepared to carry on for the foreseeable future.
“I hate to say it,” he said, “but there would have to be another person who came along that would just let me retire from this.”