Talkin’ Transit: Institutional

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‘good morning’
courtesy of ‘volcanojw’

Last week we told you about Metro’s board having voted to give preliminary approval to change their privacy policy in order to be able to provide SmarTrip data to users over the internet. The press release outlining what was to happen later this year set off my “I-can’t-believe-we’re-having-this-conversation” alarms.

In that release, Metro points out two things that set me off. First, there’s the reason for the change. It seems that after SmarTrip was introduced in 2004, the board approved a privacy policy in 2005 that seems not have considered the possibility that people would want access to their data over the internet.

Let me repeat that: five years ago, almost 15 years after the world wide web was invented and a decade after “information superhighway” entered the general lexicon, Metro’s board didn’t consider the internet when making their plans. Add to that having to have the board act in order to change the privacy policy because, it seems, the policy is written so narrowly that delivering the same data online and offline requires a change.

The second issue that press release raises is how one goes about getting access to their data:

In order for customers to access their SmarTrip® information online, Metro will collect the name, address, date of birth, phone number and e-mail address associated with the SmarTrip® card holder. The user then will be required to establish a user name, password, responses to three security questions and a digital signature to confirm that he or she is the registered user of the card.

What, exactly, is Metro running here? A bank? What in the world is a “digital signature”? And if you’ve already registered your card, but happened to forget one or the other of the details, good luck:

If the user is unable to exactly match personal information, he or she will be required to contact the Regional Customer Center by telephone to verify recent ridership, usage and transactional information associated with the card.

Instead of asking you to enter that usage information online, you have to call in and waste more of your time, not to mention Metro’s, to verify who you are. Something is seriously broken, here.

To me, this is symptomatic of leadership (the lack of it) and inertial problems at Metro. It seems very clear that they aren’t interested in making things easier for anyone, just in continuing a bureaucratic morass. The problem isn’t in these particular details, though they seem glaringly problematic to anyone who has been online for more than 15 minutes.

The problem is that this is the institutional nature of this transit agency. Everywhere you look in the system, inertia triumphs over common sense and innovation. If you want an eye opening look at some of that behind the scenes problems with SmarTrip, read Metro’s final report and audit of the Cubic contract (PDF – Cubic is the company that WMATA contracted with for SmarTrip equipment). But the problems there are symptomatic of wider issues.

There are people at Metro who are fighting the good fight, trying to change the culture of an organization and trying to do the right thing in the face of massive inertia and apathy. But the problem is endemic.

As Richard Sarles gets settled into his first month as the interim head of Metro, changing the culture of the organization needs to be his top priority. Metro has to get rid of the people that are only paying lip service to the various problems and replace them with people who are always thinking about improving service and making the customer experience a positive one. I do not envy him this job.

Born in Lebanon, Samer moved to DC to go to college. A lot of good that did him. Twenty-two years later, he still lives in the area. When he’s not writing for a blog or tweeting incessantly, he wanders the streets (and the globe) photographing whatever gets in his way.

3 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Institutional

  1. “Instead of asking you to enter that usage information online, you have to call in …”

    And this leaves those of us who are hard of hearing and don’t *use* telephones … where, exactly??

  2. For a little perspective, when Chicago introduced a Smartrip-type card in 2004, they immediately made it available online so you could add money to your card that way, as well as restock it automatically each month. Ever since I moved here I’ve been baffled that Metro doesn’t have that same capability.

  3. I would suggest that WMATA contact Starbucks who have managed to have a seamless card registration, transaction history and reloading website as far as I can tell without all the ridiculousness implied in WMATA’s plans.