You don’t have to be a Metro rider to know that the region’s subway system is in trouble. In fact, that’s why many of you have stopped riding.
A quarterly report — prepared by staff for Metro board’s finance committee meeting on Thursday — says ridership in the second half of 2015 remained at levels not seen in more than a decade.
So we decided now might not be a bad time to ask a bunch of smart people what Metro should do to restore confidence in the system and reverse a ridership decline that looks pretty bad.
How bad? The report is “unrelentingly dismal,” as our colleague Dr. Gridlock put it. Ridership fell 6 percent on weekdays in the second half of 2015, compared with the same period 2014. Weekend ridership fell 12 percent.
The drop affected virtually every station, every time period, and every type of trip. The usual culprits — bad weather, say — couldn’t be blamed for the pervasiveness of the decline, either. More likely explanations were service problems, such as increasingly erratic train schedules, the report says. Riders, meanwhile, have pointed the finger at other issues, such as safety or security.
In any event, ridership hasn’t been this low since 2004.
So Tripping asked a leader of the new Metro riders union, a smart-growther, a community activist and a few others what they would suggest. Here, with some editing, are the Top 10 things (or five or six, or seven things, depending) that Metro should focus on to halt its skid:
Graham Jenkins lives in D.C. and is an everyday Metro rider. He boards the Silver or Yellow lines, depending on his work situation. Graham, who hopes someday to ride in a 7000-series car, also happens to be vice chair and communications director of the WMATA Riders Union. Here’s what he has to say:
- Run trains more often during off-peak periods. Period.Running trains more frequently would win riders who currently don’t see Metro as a viable option. It would also help space out weekday commuters, alleviating the pressure on normal rush hour service.
- Cut all fares by 10%. Riders are no longer receiving the service they’ve paid for. For many, the prospect of interminable delays and offloads now outweighs any savings provided by riding. Reducing fares would certainly cut into revenues, but this would to some extent be made up by increasing ridership. And that unto itself would go a long ways towards reversing the “death spiral.”
- Develop a pass system that makes sense. Right now, every trip – save for those few who purchase the wildly expensive, 28-day-only “monthly” pass for $237 – is on a pay-per-ride basis. This makes every ride, essentially, a discretionary one. By offering an unlimited monthly pass for a reasonable price (and an entire month), WMATA could encourage trips beyond just those of the commute. And it would also ensure itself a steady source of revenue rather than losing money every time it snows, for instance.
- Make police more visible. While the overall odds of being attacked or harassed remain low, there are mounting fears that Metrorail is becoming more dangerous to one’s personal safety. By stationing more visible Metro Transit Police officers on trains and at “hotspot” stations, riders would gain some reassurance that their safety is being looked after.
- Run more buses. Much like rail service, bus service outside of peak hours is woefully infrequent. For many, trips would be better served by bus than rail, especially those within D.C. or a given jurisdiction; yet, the infrequent and delayed buses do not seem like a suitable alternative. Running more off-peak buses would provide people with better alternatives to rail service, particularly in the event of delays. Running supplemental buses on routes that coincide with rail lines undergoing track work would also be of great use.
- Run only 8-car trains on weekends. With fewer trains in service less frequently, there’s no excuse for not maximizing the capacity there is. Waiting 20 minutes for a train, only to see a six-car train pull in that’s standing room only, is one of the most infuriating aspects to off-peak Metro. And, obviously, the rail cars are available.
- Be transparent. This covers a lot of ground. But, more specifically, announce a timeline for the remainder of track work and give an explanation for its distribution (as opposed to focusing on single segments until everything is done). What’s left to be done? Where? Why not do it all in one section at once? We still don’t have answers to these questions, and without a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s hard to hold out much hope that track work and reconstruction will end. Ever.
Paula Bienenfeld is an archaeologist, a consultant and president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. Paula lives within walking distance of North Bethesda’s White Flint Metro station on the Red Line and rides regularly. She says she and her husband made a deliberate decision to purchase her current and previous homes to be within walking distance of Metro.
“This system used to be one of the best in the world — but now, not so much,” Paula says.
Here’s her list:
- Make safety top priority. Implement effective, regular safety training for employees, and make sure they have it and make sure the training is repeated at least bi-annually. Follow up.
- Improve communication with riders. When trains are halted or delayed, have the conductor explain immediately what the situation is and why the train is stopped. Right now I go to @unsuckdcmetro [on Twitter] to find out what’s going on. Also, get rid of communication “dead zones” (see point No. 1).
- Listen to the feds. Metro must address issues that outside auditors and the federal government are saying need to get done.
- See that your employees work as a team, and take ownership. The other year when it was snowing, there were bags of snowmelt on the platform, and people were slipping as they came off the train. It was a dangerous situation. I went upstairs to ask if they would open the bags and sprinkle the snowmelt on the platform. The answer was, ‘We are operations. You have to get maintenance to do that.’ So, the bags just sat there.
- Make Metro a clean, well-lighted place. Improve the lighting in the stations. Keep the stations–and the cars–clean.
- Fix the signage on the trains. In cases where two lines run on the same track, the commuter, and the tourist, needs to know which train is arriving. Many times the electronic signage on the outside of the car doesn’t work, and it’s not possible to identify the train.
- Use recorded messages to announce every stop. This is done in the Chicago “L” system, which began in 1888, and works very well. In Washington, we still have announcements that are interrupted and full of static, and no one can understand them. How is it that a system that is well over 100 years old has a better message system than our Metro?
- Put more maps in the trains. Right now, there is mostly advertising where there needs to be Metro system maps. If there is no room, place smaller maps on the dividers at the doors so that people, especially tourists, can figure out where the stops are, and where they are.
- Fix your clocks so off-peak fares are really off peak. Don’t charge rush hour prices when rush hour service is not being delivered.
As a former Navy aviator, Stewart Schwartz flew around tracking Russian submarines. Now he keeps an eye on urban sprawl. He is executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a 19-year-old nonprofit that focuses on land use and transportation. Metro is a big priority for the group, and Stewart says he tapped his staff to come up with these ideas:
- Make real-time train arrival information more accurate and available. Arrival times should be available at station entrances to allow riders to decide their best transportation option before descending into the station. Metro should also make sure arrival time information is accurate and synchronous — across stations, across PIDs (the screens), and apps. It should also change how real-time arrival information is displayed on screens: instead of filling the whole screen with delays and announcements, scroll some information across the bottom of the screen so that arrival times are always visible.
- Let people know when arrival time isn’t accurate. Riders should be able to know when real time arrival information isn’t accurate, especially because of single-tracking and delays. Correct the information by making announcements.
- Do better with Twitter. Metro should ensure that someone is staffing WMATA’s social media accounts 24/7, or at least during all hours when bus or rail service is running.
- Consider shutting down whole sections for repairs instead of single-tracking. If single-tracking isn’t allowing fast enough progress on system repairs, consider closing portions of the rail system for longer periods to complete all backlogged maintenance in that closed section. Get it done, and then reopen with full service.
- Communicate better with us. Metro should do more to tell riders about the purpose, duration, and benefits of all track work by using announcements, signage, the WMATA website, social media, and regional media. While travel delays will still be frustrating, they will be infinitely more tolerable when riders have this information — thereby building more trust and understanding, and winning WMATA the support it needs to address other issues.
- Communicate better among yourselves. Metro needs to improve its internal communications, promote more information-sharing within the agency, and instill a stronger safety culture. Every employee is a safety officer, and safety must be in the forefront of everyone’s thinking.
- Work more closely with local governments on building transit-friendly neighborhoods. Metro needs to improve the joint development process with local governments, accelerating the redevelopment of WMATA property and surrounding land into walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods. Building out transit-oriented development will generate more riders, fare-box revenue, and property taxes, and it will help reduce regional traffic congestion.
- Find the money. The restoration of Metro cannot happen without adequate and consistent funding. Start an open and inclusive dialogue with the public and elected officials about funding challenges and solutions.
Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who writes about urban growth, public land, and transportation issues. He lives in Camp Sherman, Ore. (pop. 233) but visits Washington often. He has ridden Metro, studied it and written about the region’s mass transit here, here, and here. He is the author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It. He is also wearing some very cool-retro Western neckwear in his bio blurbfor Cato. Here’s what Randal has to say:
- Stop building rail lines the region can’t afford to maintain. The Silver Line is a disaster, hurting ridership on the Blue Line without adding large numbers of riders itself. Rather than learn that lesson, Metro endorsed the Purple Line, which will only draw more resources away from Metro Rail’s critical maintenance needs.
- Replace obsolete rail lines with buses. As Metro rail lines wear out, replace these with modern, efficient buses. Buses on a high-occupancy freeway lane can move more people than a Washington subway line, and adding a new bus line doesn’t reduce the capacity of other lines the way the Silver Line reduced the capacity of the Blue Line. Most important, bus capital and maintenance costs are much more affordable than rail, and buses can be just as, if not more, attractive to riders as rail with on-board WiFi and a higher percentage of people comfortably seated rather than standing.
- Let the computers do the driving. On rail lines that aren’t immediately replaced with buses, Metro should put a higher priority on restoring the signaling and computer systems that once controlled train speeds. The lurching, stuttering human-driven trains since the 2009 fatal collision are uncomfortable to riders and offer little assurance that trains are safer than when they were run by computers.
- Privatize. WMATA should contract out both rail and bus operations to private companies such as First Transit, Coach, Virgin, or Veolia. Experience in other cities has shown that private operators can save agencies a considerable amount of money, freeing up funds for rail maintenance and bus improvements.
- Get a sponsor. WMATA should seek corporate or other sponsors of individual rail stations. In exchange for maintaining elevators and escalators, keeping stations clean and attractively decorated, and perhaps even paying for station staff, sponsors would have naming and advertising rights at the stations.
- Forget dedicated bus lanes. As Metro develops bus-rapid transit routes, it should avoid the mistake of insisting on expensive and underutilized dedicated bus lanes. Except possibly where numerous bus routes merge in downtown Washington, such dedicated lanes are completely unnecessary. Transit riders are more sensitive to fares and frequencies than speeds, so the best way to boost ridership at a low cost to taxpayers is to offer reasonably priced bus service on major routes at least every five minutes during rush hour and every 10 minutes during other times of the day.
- Work to convert HOV lanes to bus lanes. In order to have a broad network of bus-rapid transit lines, WMATA should support the construction or conversion of high-occupancy lanes (either free or tolled) along every major highway into and around D.C. Such lanes are a low-cost way of both relieving congestion and providing congestion-free bus routes throughout the region.
- Make buses more rider-friendly: try “branding” them. One reason some people say rails are better than buses, despite their higher cost, is that rail lines are more “legible,” meaning it is easier to figure out which line to take to a particular destination. That’s only true because there are fewer rail lines than bus lines. But one solution is to paint buses on different routes different colors. This makes it impossible to substitute buses from different routes for one another, but as former FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff notes, paint and buses are cheaper than trains.
- Follow London’s example: up top, people. Consider double-decker buses for high-use routes. Unlike articulated buses, which are long and clumsy, double-decker buses occupy no more road space than a standard, 40-seat bus, yet can carry twice as many people.
- Put your financial house in order. WMATA has more than $2.5 billion in unfunded pension and health-care obligations. How will it fund those obligations if it doesn’t have enough transit riders to justify continued subsidies? [And O’Toole warns that shared, self-driving cars are going to do to mass transit what Uber and Lyft have been doing to taxis.] If WMATA doesn’t start to solve that problem now, it will likely end up defaulting on those pension and health care funds.
Stephen C. Fehr is an officer at a nonprofit in Washington, and a Metro rider for 33 years. He also happens to be a former Post reporter who covered the transit agency from 1991 to 1996. Here are Steve’s thoughts:
- Keep to promised headways. What damages Metro’s credibility the most is the failure on many days to deliver rush hour service at the promised intervals between trains. If Metro can’t stick to its advertised schedule, change it to be more realistic.
- Improve the public address system in stations and trains. One of my fears living in Washington in an era of terrorism and deteriorating subway safety is of being a Metro passenger during an emergency and failing to hear instructions in stations and trains. It boggles my mind that Metro has failed to keep up with sound technology or that federal homeland security officials apparently have not ordered fixes. No train should leave a rail yard without a working, clear-to-understand PA system, and Metro should do a sound retrofit of its stations.
- Make fare increases more predictable. [W]e never know when or how much Metro is going to hit us with a fare increase. Consider instituting a multi-year fare plan in which you raise the base fare, say 5 or 10 cents, on July 1, 2017 and every two years thereafter. The predictability benefits riders and Metro.
- Stop scolding riders for stuck doors. Metro riders did not design the rail cars with the super-sensitive doors. We know most other transit systems do not have this problem. It is reasonable for an operator to firmly ask passengers not to lean on the doors but it is out of line to berate them for halting the train because of a flawed design.
- Enforce the no eating/no drinking rule. We’ve come to expect riding dirtier rail cars than in the past. Contributing to this is the lax enforcement of no eating or drinking rules. Riders know they can get away with it.
- Take care of the little things. On many weeknights, here’s how Metro says goodnight to Silver Line riders exiting at Wiehle Avenue: Train pulls into station and stops. Riders get up and walk toward the doors. Operator then “adjusts” or pulls the train forward a few feet on the platform in a jerky, start-and-stop manner. Startled riders lurch forward, grumbling as they leave the train. Many operators do give warning, but not always.
Kathy A. Gambrell lives in Bethesda. As a “content strategist” in a local business, she uses Metro three or four times a week to meet with clients in downtown Washington, D.C. Here are some of the ideas she emailed after reading Tripping’s original post:
- Open your ears to the community, riders, the feds, everyone.Stop being tone-deaf.
- Jump on the shuttle buses so people can too. Mobilize the shuttle buses — lots of them — as soon as a Metro station shuts down for a problem, such as a loss of power. Then tell riders exactly where they are….not where they are “supposed to be.”
- Cut fares–especially monthly passes. When it costs anyone anywhere more to ride Metro than to drive everyday, then the fares are too high.
- Set a uniform policy on young riders for all jurisdictions. Montgomery County has a Kids Ride Free Program that allows free rides on buses and certain routes for children under the age of 18 (or older if the person is still attending high school). The young person has to register for a Youth Cruiser SmarTrip Card. In the District, young people can get a DC One Student Card. In Prince George’s County, students can present proper ID to take advantage of TheBus after school dismissal on regularly scheduled school days. There should be a universal policy for kids who use the local transit systems and Metro.
- Improve customer relations. Have a system to file a complaint about bad customer service that gets results. Give riders who have had a bad experience a reason to return as a customer.
- Discipline bus drivers who are verbally abusive. You have cameras, and they should watch more than the passengers.
- Ditch the posters threatening to throw people in jail for not paying bus fare. It makes Metro look petty and inflexible. Give drivers flexibility to offer free rides when it is appropriate.
- Practice what you preach. Require Metro’s board members to ride the bus on the coldest days of the year or in rough neighborhoods.
Elizabeth Young, who has worked for the federal government for 20 years, lives in Friendship Heights and rides Metro’s Red and Yellow lines to her job in Crystal City. Her top three priorities:
- Improve safety. Do what the feds and auditors tell you to do.
- Increase the numbers and visibility of security personnel.
- Arrive on time.
“Would I get on an airplane or AMTRAK train that had Metro’s problems?” she writes. “No way. I don’t understand why we allow these ticking time bombs to continue.”
We’re happy to hear your nominations, too. If you have a Top 10 list of what Metro should focus on, please send them to Tripping c/o email@example.com.
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