Metro board should engage Riders’ Advisory Council in discussion of service goals


The Metro is crowded with rush-hour commuters. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Robert Thomson
Columnist October 5, 2013

The Metro Riders’ Advisory Council has finished drafting a transit customer service pledge and will send it to the Metro board for consideration.

For a document that council members hope could be adopted for posting on Metro’s Web site, in rail stations and in other parts of the transit system, it’s too long, too wordy, too complicated.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

And the Metro board should give it serious attention.

The pledge’s service goals channel what’s important to riders: safety, customer service, reliability, timely sharing of information, accessibility, security and accountability.

Yes, these are similar to goals scattered throughout transit authority documents, including the Momentum strategic plan that Metro made public this year.

But in this case, the medium is the message: The draft of the pledge is something that the advisory council spent several months developing, sometimes in agonizing detail, for review by the Metro board.

This is what advisory councils do. They advise. But in the history of the Riders’ Advisory Council, it’s not always clear who is advising whom. Council sessions often feature Metro staffers making the same service plan presentation to the riders that they’ve already made to Metro board members.

Sometimes, discussions between Metro managers and advisory council members can generate helpful suggestions about service improvements. This was the case at the council’s September meeting when Metrobus planner Jim Hamre and council members reviewed proposals to modify bus routes across the region.

Hamre knows the bus routes, and so do many of the council members, to the point where they could discuss turn by turn directions. This is not typical of service discussions involving the Metro board, which rarely rise to the level of “discussions,” as opposed to a staff presentation followed by a couple of questions and a thank you.

The Metro board established the Riders’ Advisory Council in 2005 in response to public criticism that the board wasn’t open enough to the concerns of transit customers.

“You can’t assume based on reports and based on management analysis that something’s working,” said T. Dana Kauffman, the Metro board chairman at the time. “You need to hear directly from the people who use the service.”

And, board members, they need to hear you hearing them.

The chairman of the riders’ council has a brief speaking role near the start of each month’s Metro board meeting. The chairman delivers prepared remarks that usually reflect the council’s discussions during the previous month. Sometimes, a Metro board member will ask a question, but that’s about it for the public interaction between the board and its official rider advisers.

Sometimes, a Metro board member will attend a council meeting. Catherine Hudgins, who leads the board’s customer service committee, met with the council in July to discuss the idea of a service pledge.

She spoke about the need for customers to “understand what we are promising and trying to deliver.” It’s particularly important while Metro is in the midst of a long and disruptive rebuilding program that leaves riders feeling pushed around.

The riders’ council is a creature of the board, and in drafting the service pledge, members have been mindful of their advisory role. The resulting draft is not an in-your-face declaration to be nailed to the door of Metro headquarters.

This is an example of the language that council members were tinkering with at their Wednesday night meeting: “In the event of significant delays, Metro will provide frequent updates and information about alternate transit options until normal operations resume.”

The final language probably will be better, but the best part of the process will be the chance for the board and rider representatives to engage in a public discussion of what Metro is trying to do.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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