Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Wrongsizing is not "rightsizing": WMATA transit system service cuts

This is in response to yesterday's Post Dr. Gridlock column, "What is it that gets travelers to try transit?."  From the article:
The Metro board is about to approve a fare increase and some service cuts in what General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld calls a “right-sizing” of the system.

Right-sizing is to downsizing what gaming is to gambling. They’re the same thing, but the first word in each pair is supposedly more acceptable.

Metro’s leaders are planning for a system you’ll probably use less. Ridership continues to decline for a variety of reasons, but certainly an important one is that travelers are dissatisfied with the service.
I've been meaning to write about this since I saw an article quoting a Metro board member saying something about "right-sizing" the system, which is now the official line.

Note that Dr. Gridlock believes this is a bad idea too ("What a weakened Metro means to the D.C. region," 2/16/2017).

For years I've argued that planning for transit in the Washington metropolitan area and region needs to be disconnected "from the operators."

Because the DC area has a relatively weak "metropolitan planning organization"--the planning agency charged by the US Department of Transportation to coordinate and "do" transportation planning at the metropolitan scale, by default, the primary transit agency, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority--Metro--which operates Metrorail, the area's subway system and Metrobus, the metropolitan bus service, is the primary transportation planner.

Instead I argue that at the metropolitan scale we should independently plan the ideal breadth and depth of the transit network, and simultaneously set metrics for "Level of Service" and "Level of Quality," and then contract for services.

If the transit operators can't afford to provide the services that are deemed necessary for network breadth and depth at the level of frequency and quality that riders want, that sets the stage to discuss "rightsizing" funding.

It may mean service cuts.  But at the same time, it could mean new operators.

As I have discussed here, "Getting WMATA out of crisis: a continuation of a multi-year problem that keeps getting worse, not better" and "What it will take to get WMATA out of crisis continued and 2016's 40th anniversary of WMATA as an opportunity to rebuild," WMATA was able to set up a funding system that allowed them to develop a high cost system, not recognizing that at some point there would be a ceiling to what people would consider to be reasonable fares.

As discussed, WMATA's farebox revenue was stoked by four elements:

1. Distance based fares for Metrorail increase revenue compared to systems with single-price fares.

2.  The federal government provides transit passes at no cost to federal workers.  Depending on what the law allows, this amount ranges from $150 to $250/month.  That allowed WMATA to raise fares for some time, without much impact on ridership, whereas typically, as fares rise, ridership drops.

3.  Until recently, WMATA didn't offer monthly passes that were priced to encourage transit use at the expense of top line revenue--this is frequently done by other transit systems to encourage transit use rather than to support automobility.

4.  Unlike many transit systems, WMATA charges a separate fare for each mode--bus and subway, stoking their revenue from ridership.  This has allowed the jurisdictions to provide less money to the system, compared to peer transit systems elsewhere.

As a result of not independently planning transit service--and because of there being three different jurisdictions (DC, Maryland, Virginia) that have to agree to funding services that cross borders--there are many gaps in the transit services that are available, including a limited set of overnight services especially when the Metrorail system is closed, to and from airports, especially when the Metrorail system is closed, and a failure to continue bus services across jurisdictional borders--for example most DC-based routes end at the DC-Maryland State line, rather than continue across into Maryland.

Instead, what happens is that because of financial privation, WMATA keeps cutting service on the Metrorail system and cuts and/or eliminates bus routes.

And they call this an improvement.
Tom Toles editorial cartoon, 6/10/2016, WMATA/Metrorail failure
Tom Toles editorial cartoon, 6/10/2016

This is a particularly galling issue now, because the Metrorail system is hemorrhaging riders drastically because of a terrible fall off in quality and service due partly to the repair program, which shuts down portions of lines often for days at a time--the subway system provides about 100,000 fewer rides daily.

Concomitantly, bus ridership has dropped as well, because many subway rides are linked with bus rides.

This cuts revenue and is used by the Metrorail system to justify further reductions in train frequency, bus frequency, and the elimination of bus routes.

They call it "rightsizing."

By that they claim the system got too big for them to handle, and that by eliminating bus routes, making it less efficient and more expensive to ride--fare increases are also part of next year's budget--that this makes the system better and more manageable.

That's a crock.

It should be called "wrongsizing" and "wrecking."

I question whether or not the system can rebound from its current nadir.

Granted, the NYC Subway system reached similar depths in the 1970s and 1980s and it managed to recover.

But it doesn't seem as if the DC area possesses the kind of visionary heft necessary to take this crisis as the reason to build a more robust and broader integrated transit network, rather than as an excuse to be satisfied with a shrunken transit network, albeit better funded.

See "Don't over focus on "fixing" the WMATA Compact. Instead create a new Regional Transit Compact, of which WMATA is one component."

Calling shrinking and crippling the transit network "rightsizing" doesn't give me the confidence that things will change in a positive direction.
In commenting on last year's budget proposals, I made some points that are comparable:

Fourth, the service schedules as proposed seem to indicate that WMATA/Metrorail is choosing to abdicate transit service vision in terms of providing the means for residents to adopt a sustainable mobility lifestyle with a foundation of high quality transit service throughout the day, complemented by walking, bicycling, bike sharing, car sharing, and delivery services.

Instead, the organization is focusing primarily on its role as a commuter transit service on weekdays.

The competitive advantage of Washington, DC specifically and the Washington Metropolitan area more generally as a place to live and to locate and conduct commerce and government activities is based on a rich transit infrastructure that allows for efficient conduct of trips that are time and cost effective.

This competitive advantage presupposes a transit service that provides frequent service for much of the day, comparable to systems in NYC and Chicago. Instead, the headways between Metrorail trains have significantly degraded, especially in the evenings and are to the point of deplorability on weekends.

Fifth, ... Metrorail's service quality degradation has long since destroyed the trust that once existed between the agency and riders in terms of faith in the system to operate well and with rider interests in mind.

The frequent service breakdowns, structural failures (e.g., the fire at L'Enfant Plaza which killed a rider, not just because of equipment failures but failures by Metro personnel including the Transit Police and the Rail Operations Center) and inadequate explanations by Metrorail personnel have cut the bind that once tied riders and operators together.

Since 2009 and the Fort Totten crash which killed nine people I have suggested* that it is necessary for WMATA to rebuild the metropolitan/regional consensus about the value of the transit system and its context WMATA also had this opportunity this year, on the occasion fo the 40th anniversary of the start of Metrorail service, but it has not done so.

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