Metro spy: Travels with an undercover bus rider


Riders wait for a bus going south towards downtown on 16th Street, near U Street in Northwest. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
April 5

A Metro rider, one who is quite persnickety about the quality of public transit in Washington, stands at Southern Avenue and Wheeler Road SE on a cold afternoon, waiting for an A2 bus, which, by his reckoning, should arrive in precisely 13 minutes.

Above him on a signpost, a placard indicates this is Bus Stop No. 1000064. “I see there’s no information case,” Lance Perry says, meaning no timetable sealed in clear plastic and affixed to the pole. “Not every stop has one,” he says. “I’m not exactly sure what the regulations are, but I have to note that. ‘No information case.’ ”

Raising his iPhone, he snaps a photo of the signpost, sans info case, and continues his inspection. “I see the trash isn’t overflowing; that’s good.” And he isn’t fazed by the sidewalk, which is strewn with cigarette butts. “It’s just part of this area, so I wouldn’t count it against them,” he says. “This is as clean as it’s going to get around here.”

For a large transit bureaucracy operating one of the nation’s busiest subway and bus systems, Perry, 31, is paid to keep an eye on the small stuff. Like dozens of other “mystery riders,” all part-timers employed by a Metro contractor, he’s a commuter undercover agent, traveling the rails and roadways, picking nits and filing reports to headquarters.

Trains too late, buses too early, dirty windows, balky equipment, careless drivers, rust, grime, litter, graffiti: Not much escapes Perry’s uber-critical gaze.

“Yeah, I enjoy it,” he says, and shrugs. “I guess.”

A Metro smartphone app tells him the next A2 is now 10 minutes away. “So 10 minutes, that would be 2:03 p.m.,” he says, thinking aloud, typing notes into his phone. Then he looks up, saying, “I’ll actively record that precise information, because I want to compare what time they’re saying the bus will be here with what time it actually gets here.”

Meanwhile, a bus on the D12 route arrives, gleaming silver and red. “These are newer buses, I think,” Perry says, eyeing it stem to stern. “The outside of this bus, everything looks clean. The advertisement on the back is clean. Nothing’s broken, no marks.” He watches it pull away. “But I’m not evaluating this bus,” he says, and focuses again on his phone.

After a moment, he says, “It’s telling me the A2 is now arriving.”

Leaning forward, craning his neck, he can see a half-mile north on Southern Avenue.

And . . . it’s not arriving.”

Which he definitely will include in his report.

Almost every day and night, Metro mystery riders are on the job, their identities unknown to drivers and station workers. Under a three-year contract that began in 2012, Metro will pay almost $700,000 to a marketing research giant called Ipsos, which oversees the project. An Atlanta-based company, Mystery Researchers, hires and schedules the riders, including Perry, who left the Air Force last year and runs an Internet business from his Columbia, Md., home.

A few times a week, for extra cash, he’ll choose a Metrobus or rail route from an ever-changing list on a Mystery Researchers employee Web site. For four or five hours of work, including preparing his post-ride report, he’ll get a check for $150 or so.

New Jersey Transit used mystery riders when Richard Sarles, now Metro’s general manager, was the top boss there. Three years ago, when he was hired to run the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, he brought the idea with him.

The reports — as many as 4,000 annually from Metro’s 318 bus routes and roughly 1,000 from its five subway lines — alert WMATA to relatively minor problems that ordinary passengers might find irritating but seldom bother to formally complain about.

Such as a bus that isn’t punctual.

“They told me 2:03 p.m.,” Perry says, as the A2 that he has been waiting for hisses to a stop at the curb. “It’s 2:08. So it’s five minutes late.”

He locates the vehicle’s serial number, 6301, on the chassis by the door-side headlights, and types it into his phone. He observes that the exterior of the conveyance is dent-free and shiny. Perry, tall and lean, wearing a ski cap and a black nylon jacket, boards the bus, tapping his SmarTrip card to the card-target atop the fare receptacle. The device records his fare, $1.60, on the first tap, no second or third taps needed.

No annoying additional SmarTrip taps: Check.

“So I’m looking at the floor,” he says in a low voice, wobbling along the aisle as the bus resumes its route. “Not seeing any trash.” The 13 passengers already aboard pay him no mind. “Just seeing if everybody’s comfortable. Everybody looks pretty comfortable. Temperature’s warm enough.” Halfway to the back, he slides into a window seat, pulls out his phone and says, “There are specific types of posters I need to look for.”

He means a fare chart, a house ad for SmarTrip cards and a placard with a rider-safety message. He also means revenue-generating ads. In Metro’s view, no square inch of bus space reserved for paid advertising should go unoccupied, especially the passenger-facing side of the partition behind the driver, a prime spot. Scanning the interior of Bus No. 6301, Perry sees ads wherever he looks, including a big one plastered on the partition.

“Vote Muriel Bowser for Mayor.”

Check.

The A2 bus route, east of the Anacostia River, zigzags for miles through the streets of Southeast Washington. On this frigid Friday in March, Perry’s assignment is to “audit” part of the route. He’ll ride an A2 bus from one specified stop to another, get off, inspect the stop, wait for the next A2 to arrive, and inspect that bus, as well. By the time he’s finished, he’ll have traveled on four A2 buses and visited five stops.

The hardest aspect of mystery riding is tolerating the downtime between buses, which can seem interminable, especially in an icy wind. After he gets off at a stop, it’ll take just two minutes for Perry to evaluate its condition. Then he’ll check his phone app to see when the next bus is due. He might stand in place for 20 minutes, again and again.

“I’m used to it,” he says.

An Arizona native who spent nine years in the Air Force, Perry was a staff sergeant and missile specialist at Fort Meade when he left the military to start his in-home Web-programming business. He turned to the mystery industry to supplement his income.

“It’s kind of a hidden universe,” he says. He has worked for several marketing research companies, eating fast-food and high-end restaurant fare, getting $20 per meal, plus reimbursement of the cost. He has been a mystery thrill-seeker at Six Flags. He has been a mystery moviegoer and a mystery bowler and has gotten mystery oil changes for his Honda Civic. But none of those gigs pay as well as mystery riding in the transit system.

The operator of A2 Bus No. 6301 has performed to expectations, motoring at a safe, steady pace, his eyes glued to the road. “I looked to make sure he was wearing his name tag and had his full uniform on,” Perry says, after disembarking at Eighth and Xenia streets SE. “He’s fine, he’s fine.” And so were the passengers. “I do have to see that they stay behind the yellow line. They can’t be talking with the driver while he’s driving. So they were good.”

But this Eighth and Xenia bus stop, No. 1000068: Not so good.

“The signpost is really rusted,” Perry notes, and snaps a picture. “The whole pole. Just look at it. They’ll look at the photos and decide what to do. It’s not up to me. But I think the whole thing needs to be replaced. And there’s also this trash. . . . ”

He stares into the gutter, at a plastic Velicoff vodka bottle, flattened; at an empty Tropical Fantasy Lemon Ice Tea container, crushed; at a foothill of cigarette butts and a minor mountain of other litter. Then he turns his attention back to the pole.

Someone has slapped a little round sticker on one of Metro’s placards, obscuring the phone number for bus-schedule inquiries. The sticker reads, “Muriel Bowser,” who is not only the Democratic nominee for D.C. mayor and a member of the city council, but also a District representative on Metro’s board of directors.

“I’m going to take a photo of that,” says Perry, who has 18 minutes to kill before A2 Bus No. 6360 is due to arrive and pluck him from the cold. “I’ll make it a close-up.”

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