Photo by rachelandrea on Flickr.

Social media played a gradually growing role in Rail~Volution over the past few years. This year, panels explored topics such as blogging and how public agencies use social media.

Both David and I sat on a panel discussing the way blogging has changed the conversation. We were joined by Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood and Curt Ailes from Urban Indy. Blogging has come a long way in the past few years, and the panel discussed the influence that blogs have had on policy and organizing movements.

One audience member said she associated blogs with someone posting pictures of their cat. And certainly that sort of thing used to be a primary function of blogs. But these days, many blogs have become a major part of the conversation. In fact, blogs like Streetsblog and Greater Greater Washington are changing the conversation.

As Curt explained, the urban conversation in Indianapolis hasn’t come as far as it has here. As a result, Urban Indy plays a large role in introducing Indianans to planning concepts. Curt recounted an instance where the print media came to him about a bike path. He was able to help the reporter (and the readers) to get the terminology right and understand was was at stake.

And that’s really how I see the role of Greater Greater Washington. Not as a way of bringing people over to our opinion, but as a way to give people the tools they need to be a productive participant in the conversation.

And while transforming the dialog is a great thing, social media can fill other roles, too. Metro’s Nat Bottigheimer mentioned in a panel an idea for a social media network geared toward transit users. It could let transit riders share their experiences, and could help new riders to learn how to get started. While a new social medium may or may not be forthcoming, it is possible to leverage the platforms that already exist.

We heard from representatives of several public sector agencies about the role social media plays in their communication strategies. The Utah Transit Authority has a strong presence in cyberspace; using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare, YouTube, and with three blogs catering to different user groups.

I was impressed with the idea of using Foursquare and blogging to help riders (and potential riders) find things they could use transit to get to. Foursquare has always been one of the social media tools I’ve not found much use for. But as a spatial tool, it could prove helpful to transit agencies.

UTA’s representative, Tauni Everett, also talked about using Twitter to engage the public. A recent spate of hearings about a fare hike drew less than 20 attendees to the 7 meetings held in the six-county UTA service area. But an online public hearing using Twitter generated hundreds of comments, all of which were counted in the public record.

We also heard from people from goDCgo and Nashville’s MPO about different initiatives to reach out and use new tools. For planning to be effective, it needs public participation. In today’s fast-paced world, it can be difficult to engage people in traditional ways. Using social media is proving to be a way to connect with new voices and regular participants alike.

In our region, agencies are using new strategies for communication as well. Metro, for example, has started to engage riders on Twitter. And the planning department there has started its own blog to help broaden the dialogue.

How do you see the role of social media and blogging as a part of the planning conversation? How could agencies like DDOT and WMATA improve? And what’s the next generation of social media?

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.