Talkin’ Transit: Wishful Thinking

Photo courtesy of
‘tunnel vision*’
courtesy of ‘mofo’

Metro has a new (interim) general manager, and what follows is my “welcome to DC, please fix Metro” letter. Some of it is needed work, but admittedly, some of my wishes are wishful thinking.

Dear Mr. Sarles,

Welcome to Washington. I hope the city and the mild weather we’ve been having agrees with you. I trust you are slowly learning the ropes over at Metro HQ, and that you’re keeping your promise to ride the system (at least once in a while).

I’m sure that you’ve been briefed by some of the best and the brightest at Metro, already. I hope you’re well on your way to understanding some of the major issues facing Metro, and that you still have some space on your plate for some of the less critical items as well.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to drive into the office. It was a smooth, fast ride at 5:30 in the morning. Faster than Metro could have got me there. I did have to pay for parking, and at $12, it wasn’t steep but not something I could afford to do every day. More and more, though, I find myself contemplating paying that every now and again. In the evenings, especially if I stay downtown for a leisurely dinner, I tend to cab it home.

It didn’t always used to be that way, Mr. Sarles. Until the last few months, it was rare for me to cab anywhere. Now, I’m trying to wrangle a deal for parking and taking taxis over half the time. The problem? Well, it’s item one on my list.

  • Reliability
    The system isn’t as reliable as it once was. I’m sure you know this, and I’m sure you know that two of the reasons are the mixing and matching of different series trains, as well as manual operation of all the trains. I ask that the first order of business be to stop both practices. I don’t believe either item makes our daily commute any safer, but it clearly makes it less reliable. If you need some well reasoned analysis, well, Dave Stroup has it without the sugar coating.
  • 8-Car Trains
    I think that Mr. Gunn’s report released last week (PDF), at the insistence of a member of Congress, no less, calls out Metro’s economic analysis as questionable. He gives 8-car trains as an example. His argument seems to be that while the running trains in 8-car configurations might cost more on wear and tear, it might cost less in headcount. In the best case, I would like to see all 8-car trains during rush hour. And if we can’t have 8-car trains all the time, then trains should stop where they were designed to, instead of the front of the station, to allow for better load distribution.
  • Secrecy
    Two words here: stop it. Metro is not a major computer and phone manufacturer that has tremendous amounts of trade secrets. Metro is, in the words of Congressman Chris Van Hollen, “a public agency.” It is time for it to act as such. Don’t make Congress demand you release reports. For that matter, don’t make journalists dig around for information. All of Metro’s goings on, with very few exceptions, should be public. How else am I going to second guess you?
  • Communicate
    I can’t stress this enough: come right out and tell people where we are, why we are there, and how you are going to fix it. It’s important that Metro be seen with an active and public leader. Maybe it’s time to have another blogger roundtable discussion? Here’s a secret: we all live in this town, and we all use Metro. We want you to succeed, even if we might disagree on how to get there.
  • Data
    You’ve got access to lots of data. Along with letting some of that secrecy go and with open communication, you should look to release as much of that data as is practical. Real time train and bus locations, real or near real time fare gate
    information, and live updated problem areas (escalators and the such). There’s a lot of talented programmers and number crunchers out there who would love to create applications and websites based on this information. Metro can’t afford that kind of talent, but can afford to let others play in its sandbox.
  • Security
    Speaking of data, all incidents involving crime in the Metro system should be reported sooner than later. Many, if not most, local jurisdictions release their crime reports and they never make excuses about on going cases. Further more, Metro Transit Police could do with a more friendly face: it does us all a disservice that they are dressed in tactical police outfits and often look unapproachable.
  • Friendliness
    You can’t force someone to be friendly. But you can certainly encourage interaction by Metro staff with its customers. Some station managers take upon themselves to stand outside their kiosks and greet people as they come and go. Others sit behind that glass, disinterested in anything going on outside. Hire more of the former.
  • Costs
    Mr. Sarles, I end with a plea to reconsider the fare structure. I live fairly close to downtown, and most of my rides cost $1.80. But there are people whose round trip commute is approaching $10, and that’s before you include parking or bus to the train station. For some, it might be cheaper to drive than to take the Metro every day. This, along with the very complex rules governing what you will pay depending on time of day, need to be fixed. Many systems do a single fare or very well defined multiple zones. Maybe it’s time to look at those in order to keep people on the rails and off the roads?

Thanks for taking the time to read my rather unordered wish list. I hope you can affect real change on a system that is decaying, and I hope you will be able to give me even a small subset of this list.

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.

14 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Wishful Thinking

  1. I’m sure they could, if they wanted to. I think there’s a bit of secrecy embedded in the culture of any such large organization. I do think that technology and some of the more forward thinking folks there will win the battle, eventually, I’m just very impatient.

    I think privacy is also a bit of a canard. If they wanted to release it, anonymizing the data is a pretty standard procedure these days. Imagine what you could create with live fare gate data that’s anonymous but consistent through a single trip or day.

  2. Simplifying the fare structure would be helpful to customers and to Metro. Would you go to a Starbucks where the price of coffee was determined by location and time of day? No, that would annoy you.

    And redesign the fare card machines. I was at a training session on web site usability and the speaker (who was from Europe) used a picture of a fare card machine as an example of poor usability.

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  4. It’s worth mentioning that more 8 car trains will require extensive and expensive upgrades throughout the system — there’s not enough power to support any more 8-car trains during rush hour.

    I actually don’t have a huge gripe with rush hour service. However, off-peak and weekend service unpredictably ranges between “acceptable” and “unusable.” It annoys me to no end that I tend to only see 8-car trains on the weekends (running at 15-30 minute intervals at that!). The system would be much more usable if we had 4 or 6 car trains running at 10 minute intervals during off-peak times.

  5. @Joe, it’s interesting to hear about that usability speaker. I believe the fare card machines were hailed for their simplicity at the time they were introduced.

    @Andrew, can you provide more details or a link about extensive upgrades to handle 8-car trains? My impression was that the system was designed to handle 8-car trains, but perhaps they didn’t build out the power?

    @Tom, MTA manages it for $2.25. Yes, it’d be less fair to those of living closer in, but we would benefit from having more riders (and hopefully a more solvent Metro) and fewer cars and pollution in town.

  6. @Tom, I’ll have to crunch some numbers and see. I’ll see about making it another Talkin’ Transit. My problem might be getting data about ridership levels broken down by time and distance, or by fare.

  7. Put me down as strongly disagreeing about where the trains stop. Having every single train stop consistently in the same place makes deciding where to wait way easier. If you’re within 6 car lengths of the front of the platform you know you’re in the right spot to get on. The electronic signs may be occasionally flaky, but on average they’ll let you know if it’s a 6 or 8 coming in plenty of time to mosey further back if you so desire.

    I vote for trains pulling all the way forward till the end of days.

  8. While metro can make some of these changes, the majority of the requests you are making just aren’t possible with current amount of financial support that metro is getting. Hell, maryland is actually cutting the amount of money it is contributing to metro – pretty much ensuring that service is going to suffer. MTA can keep rates at a low, flat rate, but they also have a steady stream of revenue in the form of all those tolls in NYC.

  9. Every weekend has me waiting 45 minutes to an hour for a single metro ride on the red line, yellow line, etc… is terrible

    Metro employees are shutting doors on people every day…it is obvious they aren’t looking whatsoever when shutting them

  10. Matt Johnson of Greater Greater Washington has ridership data by station pair (origin and destination). I just got an excel file with fares by station pair. You could probably put them together.

  11. Charge the tourists! Many intelegent metro systems charge casual users (ie paper cards) more than local commuters. Has this ever occured to them?

    I thought I was paying more for better service.. Where is the better service part?? All I see is higher and soon even HIGHER fares!!