Half a decade since most major transit agencies joined Twitter and Facebook, HSR is still inexplicably silent on social media, leaving many riders without much needed regular service updates.

It also means that during storms, bad weather, or when accidents occur, riders aren't able to find out in a convenient and immediate way about delays or detours.

'They need a social media, smartphone-centred communications plan.' - Alex Sevigny, McMaster University communications expert

It’s just another handicap that keeps public transit in Hamilton from expanding, advocates say, as the city’s beleaguered bus system lags far behind its neighbours when it comes to ridership growth. The city says it's aware of the problem and will examine it further in the coming months, but for some, that's not enough.

“HSR must make this a priority,” McMaster University communications expert Alex Sevigny told CBC Hamilton. “It’s important now – there’s no denying it.”

“It’s just something HSR has to do.”

It’s something most other cities did long ago. Here’s a look at how long other transit systems have been on Twitter:

  • TTC: six years
  • Brampton Transit: almost five years
  • GO Transit: five and a half years
  • Winnipeg transit: five years
  • Vancouver transit: five and a half years

When those transit agencies got on board with social media years ago, it was largely seen as a “value added” service, Sevigny says. “But not anymore. Now members of the public expect it.”

But in Hamilton, there has been no sign of any official Hamilton Street Railway Twitter or Facebook accounts. The city itself only started posting on Twitter in the summer of 2013.

City spokesperson Mike Kirkopoulos told CBC Hamilton in an email that the city is "fully aware of the gap and the opportunity for HSR to use social media for customer service and marketing."

'There really isn't much downside, other than having a more informed public.' - Jason Nason, transit advocate

"A dedicated resource responsible for being responsive to riders for all customer service inquiries of all types is key and something we will be examining in greater detail," he said. Kirkopoulos also pointed to the city's official Twitter account, which he says provides customer service to users.

However, that account has only posted one transit related update in the last week — a reminder that HSR service is free after 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve.

Kirkopoulos says the city's new transit director Dave Dixon and communications staff will "examine what is required" to establish an online presence and "resource it appropriately."

"Dave is undertaking a review of customer service and what it’ll demand, in terms of the appropriate online presence," he said. "We hope that will begin in the spring."

Sluggish ridership growth

Hamilton’s bus ridership hasn’t grown nearly to the rate of other municipalities in recent years. From 2006 to 2012, ridership in Hamilton grew by just 2.98 per cent. In that same time frame, Ottawa’s transit system grew by 9.96 per cent and St. Catharines grew by 15.30 per cent.

Brampton blew everyone out of the water in that time at 81.1 per cent.

Sevigny says improved information about service updates online could help bolster ridership here. “They need a social media, smartphone-centred communications plan.”

But the city is a long way away from that. Even something as basic as transit maps on the city website are posted in PDF format, which isn’t mobile friendly.

At least one person has tried to pick up the city’s slack and get information out – even if it isn’t in an official capacity. Jason Nason has been running the unofficial HSR Transit Twitter account since 2011, and a Hamilton transit Facebook page since 2012.

He’s working for no other reason but a love for public transit – Nason even calls it his “free time job.”

“I love transit and am passionate about public transit in the city,” he told CBC Hamilton. “Transit is on my mind a lot of the time and I am often thinking of new ways to do things, improvements that can be made, route changes and modifications and a lot of other things.”

“I only wish that I had more time to work on it, and access to direct information from the city in real time to improve upon what I already do.”

No downside, except for a 'more informed public'

Nason, much like Sevigny, says having a dedicated transit account to provide real time transit updates is something that people simply expect today.

“I am not really sure why the city hasn't embraced social media. There really isn't much downside, other than having a more informed public,” he said. “Having the transit user base know that their bus didn't come on time because there was a detour due to a collision wouldn't do any harm, and would give users more trust in the system.”

But that trust doesn’t seem to be growing. Nason, for his part, even called up then-transit head Don Hull and offered to do communications work for the city officially last year.

“Mr. Hull said that the city was looking into creating a position, but there were no concrete plans for anything in the near future and he would let me know if something came about.”

Hull was removed from his post overseeing HSR last summer after the transit agency was rocked by allegations of sexual harassment.

He retired in November.