Metrorail riders need the same purpose-driven forums available to Metrobus customers

Robert Thomson
Columnist September 14, 2013

The transit authority planners and managers who work on Metrobus can be very pushy. Seems like they always want to know what riders are thinking about the service.

A set of public hearings this week is just the latest and most formal example of how the managers and planners invite customers to communicate. For the past few years, Metrobus officials have routinely engaged riders and communities in plans to redesign service on individual lines where the buses are too crowded or get thrown off their schedules because of traffic congestion.

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

Change for the better doesn’t come fast enough in any part of the transit system. But when it comes to involving customers in service plans, why can’t Metrorail be more like Metrobus?

Your first thought is probably that the Metrobus part of our transit service is a lot more amenable to customer engagement. The buses run on rubber. As long as there are roads, they can be shifted around to accommodate changing needs.

Before shifting a route, changing the schedule or adding and subtracting buses, it makes a lot of sense for the managers and planners to get out and talk to the people who are riding those routes.

Many rail service issues were settled when the tracks were laid. Making significant changes can be a ponderous process, involving decades of planning and budgets in the billions.

Still, the willingness to engage with the public that’s evident in Metrobus outreach could work for Metrorail as well.

Metrorail’s current version of outreach tends to be tied to the budget cycle. If fares are going up or service cuts are under consideration, Metro holds the required hearings in the spring. People sign up to speak. They say they oppose fare hikes and service cuts.

It’s more like a show trial than an environment in which interested parties ask questions of each other and try to work out plans.

The upcoming bus hearings are different. They are not part of the budget process. Instead, Metro puts out a list of proposed changes on bus lines and says, in effect, “Here's what we’re thinking. Tell us what you think.”

Riders will tell Metro what they use the buses for and how the service changes would affect their trips.

Smaller Metrobus forums have been held to engage riders of the 16th Street Line or the 30s Line, among many others, in conversations that resulted in more sophisticated service patterns, often shortening some trips while adding a limited-stop option on longer trips.

For Metrorail, the topics would be different. There might be opportunities for discussion about the condition of a platform, the possibility of adding a stairway, the placement of information signs in a station, better ways of communicating with riders or solving some of the problems created by the weekend rebuilding program.

But in this case, the style of communication may be as important as the substance. Today’s Metrorail is just too big for many of its customers to approach. And the transit authority rarely invites face-to-face contact aimed at identifying and solving problems.

A customer-service phone line, comment cards, a Twitter feed and information posters attached to broken escalators all have their place in a communications system. But that’s a long-distance relationship.

People need a chance to talk and ask questions about each line, even each station.

Talk doesn’t solve everything. The D.C. region takes transit very personally, and not every personal problem can be fixed. Jim Hamre, the Metrobus planner who listens to riders and responds to their concerns in countless forums, notes that you can’t ignore the “mass” part of mass transit.

Yet rail managers and rail customers could benefit from the routine, low-key, small-scale interactions often available to bus riders.

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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