Track: Graduate Student Paper Competition
In the U.S., public transit ridership in 2020 declined by 79% compared to 2019 levels at the start of the pandemic. With lockdowns implemented during the early days of the pandemic, direct human-to-human interactions migrated to virtual platforms. This study investigates the public’s perception of transit systems via a social media analysis, given the advent of vaccines and other COVID-19 preventive measures. We developed a structured topic modeling tweet analytics (Twilytics) framework to analyze public discourse data (i.e., tweets from 2020 to 2021) on the impact of COVID-19 on transit systems. The framework has four main components: first, we extracted the tweets starting from June 2020 to November 2021. Second, we pre-processed and cleaned the data. Third, we performed statistical analysis on the cleaned data. Lastly, we performed topic modeling (TM) using a Latent Dirichlet Allocation approach to reduce the dimensionality of our textual data and uncover the prominent themes of the public’s perception of transit systems during the pandemic. We extracted 44,320 tweets related to public transit in the US within the study period. On average, 2020 had 113 transit-related tweets per month, while 2021 had 59.81. In addition, categorizing the tweets resulted in four main themes: transit and social distancing, travel bans, airlines, and vaccinations. Kruskal-Wallis’s analysis of variance test results showed a statistically significant difference (p < 0.05) in the number of transit-related tweets per month and day. The TM findings revealed themes constituting fear and confusion about using public transport, preference for private transport, and bicycles over public transit during the first year of the pandemic. The public had doubts on how the vaccines will impact transportation and movement throughout 2021, with most users concerned about the influence of the variants. Transport managers and city planners can use this framework as a decision-making tool to enable a holistic understanding of public opinions on transportation services and formulate policies for a safe reopening.