Earlier Samer wrote about how his commute changed when he was able to drive to work, for me it has been a luxury I’ve enjoyed for most of my time here in the DC area. I called it a luxury because I had a parking space at an office .7 miles away from my home in Clarendon. With a parking space waiting for me at work I freely drove that .7 miles to and from my home every day.
Call me lazy but I grew up in a Boston suburb where you needed a car in order to get anywhere around town. For me driving was always a necessity and a habit I didn’t give up til my car had an extended stay at the mechanic. Now I have the opposite of what Samer had: I took a new job in Rosslyn, where parking wasn’t provided and I went from a daily driver to a daily Metro commuter.
Even before I became a daily Metro customer I’ve been a big fan of the Metrorail system. When asked to compared Washington, DC with my hometown of Boston it is the Metro and the public transportation system that leads my argument for why I love DC a little bit more than beantown. Sure Boston has their legendary T system but WMATA did things that the MBTA never had.
I never lived within walking distance to a subway system before moving away from Massachusetts and I fell in love with it on my very first trip: a long ride from Dunn-Loring to Court House. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about parking when going out downtown. Saturday night out with friends? No worries, the trains run til 3 AM- right around closing time. In Boston trains closed around midnight even though most nightspots will stay open til 2 AM. I was also impressed with a rail system with ETA times and cell service underground. To me these amenities proved to me that Metrorail was a clear leader over what I grew up with back home.
Like every transportation system there were glitches and hiccups. Perhaps a train would break down or run late, it’s part of the game we play when you have an extensive public transit system. In fact the morning I publish this post I had to wait two trains and cram myself into a crowded train car for my short ride to Rosslyn. We all have our occasional gripes with WMATA but we put up with it- for some it beats road rage.
However for WMATA the entire game changed on June 22nd, 2009 when two trains collided near the Fort Totten Metro station.
It was one of those events where most locals can remember where they were when it happened. I was in my office frantically tweeting and blogging as many details as I could find as I stayed glued to the television. Dave Stroup wrote a great piece talking about some of the changes and events since that fateful day.
One year later and the system is still appears to be broken. The Washington Post reports that WMATA hasn’t made progress on improving safety in an article that has Greater Greater Washington wondering if WaPo is too negative on Metro.
The problem to me isn’t media bias. In today’s news world, media outlets are going to report stories the way they want- just watch the same story reported through MSNBC and Fox News if you don’t believe me. The bigger picture is that WMATA is now under the microscope more than ever. It is the unfortunate truth when you are victim to a major accident.
Right now nobody wants to be friends with BP, trust me I’ve seen those stupid ads on Facebook and YouTube and I doubt anybody is clicking the like button on those ads anytime soon. When you think of the unfortunate accident that is still causing thousands of gallon of oil to spill out into the Gulf Coast are you wondering what ExxonMobil and Chevron are thinking? I wouldn’t be surprised if they are just as busy as BP- making sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them.
When a major incident occurs lessons are learned by not just the ones that made the mistake- but also by others hoping to avoid the same fate. Transit authorities around the country took notice at what happened here in Washington, DC last year and started to make sure their systems were safe, and they did so without the microscope of public scrutiny- a benefit WMATA doesn’t have.
So with extra scrutiny WMATA has to go above and beyond. They have taken the right steps in the aftermath of the accident: they have increased staff dedicated to safety; shook up leadership; and are working to replace aging cars. All of these are the right steps but it won’t be enough to satisfy the public because the bar has been raised. What WMATA needs is to not just improve but innovate. They need to become the leaders of safety; the leaders in efficiency; the leaders in customer service. When you are under the magnifying glass you have to fly above the bar- not just meet it.
I know this won’t be an easy task, right now Metro is struggling to find funding and is dealing with board issues. However I know that Metro impressed me once with features that outclassed other systems, so it is certainly possible they can do it again.
Like most Washingtonians I will continue to ride the Metro because it is still the most convenient method to get where I want to go. The task for Metro is turn the customer experience from a necessity to a pleasure.