A traveler raised an interesting point during today’s online chat about Metro’s plans to lower its sights for on-time performance rates. Here’s how the question was put:

Would you care to comment on Metro reducing its performance targets? Using the example of rail operations, the on-time goal has been reduced from 95 percent to 90 percent. Metro’s stated reason is that ongoing trend data supports this reduction in the target. Shouldn’t Metro be aiming for a higher level of performance not a mediocre level of performance? Also Metro’s definition of “on-time” is extremely lax as it is and considers a train “on-time” even if it arrives several minutes late.

[See a pdf version of the Metro presentation.]

DG: I hope this plan will lead to a discussion between Metro board members and transit staff at the board’s customer service committee meeting at Metro headquarters on Thursday morning.

It’s going to be difficult for riders to understand why the transit authority plans to lower its target on-time rates from 95 percent to 90 percent for rail and 80 to 78 percent for bus operations.

It's not that those overall rates have meant much to the passengers. For one thing, Metro doesn’t meet them. For rail, the average on-time performance rate for 2009 was 90 percent and for 2010, 89 percent. For bus, the 2009 rate was 75 percent and for 2010, 74 percent. (As the commenter pointed out, there’s significant leeway in Metro’s definition of “on time.”)

But what does that overall rate mean to a rider anyway? Riders are a lot more likely to ask “How come the Orange Line trains are so far apart at 8:30 a.m.”? Or “How come I had to wait 15 minutes for an S4 and now there’s two of ’em back to back?”

But to some riders, it’s the thought that counts. What they’ll take away from this is that Metro can’t meet its service goals, so it’s lowering the goals.

There are several reasons Metro can’t meet the current goals, according to the staff presentation. Since the Red Line crash in June 2009, the trains have been under manual control, rather than the automatic control they were designed for. Manual controls mean it takes more time to stop the trains at platforms and more time to open and close the doors. Many Metrobus routes operate along streets that are among the most congested in the nation, and the crowding is getting worse.

All those are legitimate issues in on-time performance. But if Metro is saying that the timetables are unrealistic, why not change the timetables so the riders can plan accordingly and keep the higher performance standards for the transit organization?

Well, actually, I can think of a reason from the organization’s point of view: If this is about more than reporting percentages, if it’s about holding managers accountable for meeting goals, then you want them to have realistic goals. That would ultimately pay off for the riders, as well as the managers. After all, if the new targets are met, they can always be raised.