The future of riding on Metrorail: Part One, what some stakeholders said in last week's City Paper cover story
WMATA, the transit authority in the DC metropolitan area, is admitting that poor service is affecting ridership and revenue ("What it looks like when Metro riders reach their breaking point," Washington Post; "Why D.C.-Area Commuters Say They Are Dropping Metro," WAMU-FM).
I was reading an article (Stress Testing: How Can You Ensure Your Institution's Fiscal Health?," ) in Trustee, the magazine for the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities) whose members sit on college boards, about metrics for staying on top of the financial health of your school.
Use of public transit in U.S. reaches highest level since 1956," New York Times ), especially for rail-based services, ridership decline ought to have been an indicator that the system was experiencing problems, which without correction, would only get worse.
(Note that much of the transit ridership increase has been in NYC. However, it is the largest cities, with heavy rail transit systems that have the most transit usage anyway.)
Last week, the Washington City Paper did a nice cover story, "How to Fix Metro: Thirteen proposals from riders, advocates, and experts," featuring interviews with experts and riders about "how to fix Metrorail." The idea behind the story was good, although I didn't think there was enough meat in maybe half of the responses.
But I was super-surprised to see that the two best comments, in my opinion, were from DC Councilmember Jack Evans and former director of the DC Office of Planning, Harriet Tregoning. And right up there was Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smart Growth.
Plus Darrin Nordahl. In the past, I've pooh poohed his ideas focused on making transit fun, but he didn't discuss that, instead focusing on the role of transit in making great places, that transit is the foundation of great cities.
WMATA Riders' Union ("Metro riders form union to serve as platform to address service," Washington Post.
Part Two will be my response to the piece.
The thirteen people's comments can be summarized thusly:
Dan Tangherlini, former director of DC Dept. of Transportation, interim director of WMATA for short period
-- "focus on the rider"
Gabe Klein, former director of DC Dept. of Transportation, and author of the newly published Start Up City
-- WMATA shouldn't try to do everything itself, be open to innovation, contract services (such as transportation information displays) from the best providers, consider contracting transit services
Save the Blue Line co-founder
-- WMATA needs to make big capital investments and those are long term projects. In the short run, to repair the relationship with riders, provide refunds for significantly delayed trips, and stop charging rush hour rates for times when the number of trains provided is paltry.
Jack Evans, DC Councilmember and WMATA Baord member
Public transportation only works when it’s cheap and convenient. This is especially true in today’s world when anyone can press three buttons on their phone and order a clean, quick, and fairly inexpensive car service to pick them up within minutes.Ashley Robbins, WMATA Riders' Union chair
Unfortunately, WMATA is struggling to be either right now, with constant service interruptions and delays making it unreliable for people and rising fares making it more expensive year after year. If you live near the end of one of the lines and have to park at the station to get in the system, you’re easily spending $15 a day to commute into D.C.
The system isn’t working well right now, but it can be fixed. It’s going to take immediate, serious action, but we can, to use the common expression, “unsuck” the Metro system.
In the short-term, we need to hire a general manager who can motivate the workforce to be proactive about improving the system and strike fear in his or her leadership team that if they don’t get things done or make this a system that works for riders, there will be consequences. We also need to continue to get the financial and operational house in order. We need to get an audit done quickly enough that it is actually helpful to improve our finances, we need to create enough maintenance time to keep the system running, and we need to have a sense of urgency to do these things now.
Longer-term, we need to decide as a region if we want an OK system that runs every eight to 12 minutes, has decent but not exemplary geographic coverage, and is one of the more expensive systems in the country. If we decide instead that we want a first-class system that is conveniently located with more stations, has reliable and short headways, and has a cheaper fare structure, then we as a region need to pay for it.
It’s going to take dedicated or at least increased funding—on the order of $25 billion over the next 10 years—to build a system that works for the Washington region in 2025, not 1975. Regional leaders and the public need to decide if that’s what they want, and then pay for it. Raising fares and being inconvenient is a recipe for obsolescence.
My ideal system has a single fare for all riders, never stops building or expanding stations, and is more convenient to use than a mobile car service.
-- engage riders, improve the safety culture, have an approach to quickly handle service disruptions, don't use WMATA's problems as an excuse not to fund WMATA.
WMATA belongs to all of us—the Board of Directors and local jurisdictions, but most importantly, the riders. Reforming the system is an opportunity to ensure that the agency provides safety, customer service, and communication to its most important stakeholders, those of us who use the system every day. Effective reforms will ensure a strong future for the agency and the vitality of the region.Darrin Nordahl, author of Making Transit Fun! and My Kind of Transit
Transit planners note that transit has to be safe, clean, convenient, and reliable. And certainly D.C.’s Metro can improve in each of these areas. But there are other factors that Metro—and transit agencies across America—need to consider if they are to be successful in the coming years.Roger Bowles, WMATA Riders' Union
When you examine the most livable cities in the world—Vancouver, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Portland—what you find are multiple modes of mobility, all seamlessly integrated. Streets are chock-a-block with pedestrians, cyclists, bus riders, and straphangers. This isn’t by happenstance. It’s by design. The transportation network in these communities is not just an extension of great urban living, but a reflection of it. The streets are comfortable and compelling for strolling along, biking along, or even just wiling away a couple of hours. The design features that comprise the great streets in these cities—wide, comfortable sidewalks and bike lanes, trees, shade, places to sit so we can read the paper, sip a cup of coffee, or just watch others—need to be included in the overall transportation network. Why? Because every transit trip begins and ends with a short walk or a bicycle ride. ...
Giving attention to all the environments that transit riders will occupy or pass through on their journey—the walk from their office to the train station; the streets they have to cross to get to the bus stop; the street corner itself where we will wait five or fifteen minutes (or more) for the bus; the bus and train itself—and asking questions—like what is the lighting like, are the seats comfortable, and can I sip a cup of coffee without being harassed by rule-mongers wagging their fingers about “no food or beverages onboard”—help create a transit network that lures even the most entrenched motorist from his or her car.
-- Break up WMATA, the WMATA Board is political and should be dissolved. Create a new authority run by top transportation officials from DC, MD, VA, and the Federal Government. Devolve bus operations to the local jurisdictions
Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director, Coalition for Smarter Growth
-- Transit is fundamental to the region's growth. Fix Metro and expand regional transit service.
Before Metro, the federal government had to work on a shift basis to deal with traffic. Before Metro, the city and older inner suburbs were experiencing economic decline as we sprawled outward. With Metro, they boomed. Without Metro and continued transit expansion, we would need thousands of lane-miles of new highways, and tens of thousands of additional parking spaces, impacting homes and neighborhoods and taking the life out of communities.Randal O'Toole, anti-transit advocate, Cato Institute
Metro has fueled billions of dollars in real estate investment and the walkable, transit-oriented centers that are so much in demand today. Recently, 84 percent of new office development in the pipeline has been within a quarter-mile of Metro. Marriott’s CEO says the company will move to a Metro station location, joining Hilton, Choice Hotels, Intelsat, and dozens of other companies seeking Metro station locations. Office parks are dead. No one wants to work there anymore.
We must unite in a commitment to fix Metro and expand regional transit service. This means that instead of pointing fingers and fighting over who pays what, every elected official—our governors, congressional delegation, mayors, councilmembers, and supervisors—must unite to provide the shared vision, the funding, and the oversight needed to put Metro back on track. They need to hire a new general manager who has the experience and management skills to run a large technologically complex organization, but also the leadership skills to inspire and to change organizational culture. Metro must become much more transparent, improve communications, and engage the public. It must become a customer-focused organization.
Metro planners recently determined that completing transit-oriented development at all existing Metro stations would increase the ridership and efficiency of the Metrorail system, eliminating the need for an operating subsidy and even generating an operating surplus. But we can’t get there without fixing the aging infrastructure; addressing management, communications, and safety issues; and investing in the capacity needed to handle future growth. Let’s get on with it!
-- Rail was the wrong choice. Should have been buses. Self-driving cars are the future.
Rod Diridon, former director of Mineta Transportation Institute, former chair, American Public Transportation Association
You can’t privatize a program that doesn’t make money, and no mass transportation systems in the world—except for a line here and there and high-speed rail—make a profit. So you can’t privatize Washington Metro, unless you subsidize it and give that tax dollar subsidy to a private company… If you’re going to give a lot of money to a private company, why not give it to Washington Metro and let them rebuild their system and operate it properly? They have the ability. You’ve got people like Mort Downey on that board who are outstanding managers, they just need the money to do the job.Tim Krepp, tour guide, former candidate for Congressional Delegate, DC
First, you have to provide an outstanding transportation experience, and a lack of maintenance on Metro because of a lack of funding precludes you providing an outstanding experience. So you need to have, first of all, a superior product and you need to marry that with an outstanding management team.
Often times, when you have a lack of funding, those who are loathe to give you money because they don’t have it or because they’re cheap will pit the riders against the managers and against the unions in order to distract you from the fact that you don’t have enough money. The riders, the managers, and the unions need to get together here, realize you don’t have the money to operate an outstanding system, and go to your funding source and ask them, either politely or rudely, for adequate funding.
-- WMATA needs long term fixes. But right now WMATA sure needs to improve how it deals with riders. Announcements usually don't provide substantive information. Top executives should be out on the front lines. The WMATA twitter feed sucks, Improve.
Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board
-- US DOT needs to regulate WMATA to ensure safety.
Harriet Tregoning, Head of the Office of Community Planning and Development, HUD, former director of the DC Office of Planning
... We have typically had general managers, it was their last stop before retirement. You’re not going to get the most innovation or commitment to changes when you’re thinking about retiring. I’ve suggested that our peer group is not limited to the United States, to U.S. transit systems. Many, many other transit systems around the globe might be more comparable both in terms of the development patterns and the degree to which those cities are able to have the non-automobile mode-share that we have in the District.-- + hire a CEO and put in place dedicated funding
The second thing: We benefited for 40 years from being one of the most recent heavy rail systems in the country. I think we haven’t really come to grips with what it requires to keep a clearly aging system like ours in a state of good repair. I don’t think we’ve been straight with anybody, including ourselves or our riders, about what it really takes to have that state of good repair, and it’s really hurt the reliability of the system. We need to be honest with ourselves and we need to have a straight-up discussion with our riders very explicitly about what the tradeoffs are and what the needs really are.
Speaking of our customers: We need to have a very different relationship with them than we do right now. We need to be much more transparent and open and communicative with them. We have more than a million riders daily; they are our eyes and ears in the system. We should be creating all kinds of panels for them to give us feedback about how the system is working, what things aren’t working, what their priorities are… So, what do our customers say we should be paying attention to? That’s really important.
If you go to other cities... the Tube in London is a part of the experience in living in and visiting the city. People have such a fondness for the system, even though it’s a very old system and it breaks down sometimes. It’s part of their daily experience, and I don’t think we’ve really cultivated that kind of relationship around Metro. We’ve been kind of formal, standoffish, and bureaucratic as an organization, and I do think we need to talk more about what it means to have Metro choices.
I certainly hear tourists talk about how great it is, but boy, I see things every day that could be improved in terms of how easy it is to navigate the system, what we do to make it as user-friendly as possible, especially when there’s a disruption.
Part of having a better relationship and a more transparent relationship with our customers, I think we need to do more to innovate within the system. That means also being willing to try different approaches and occasionally to fail; but if we manage our customers’ expectations, we can study something for years or we can try something for a couple of months and see how it works, and use that as a way to make an adjustment to service and other things.