Spring is arriving, but it’s still the winter of discontent for many of us who care about the future of transit in the nation’s capital. The Metro board is about to approve a fare increase and some service cuts in what General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld calls a “right-sizing” of the system.
Right-sizing is to downsizing what gaming is to gambling. They’re the same thing, but the first word in each pair is supposedly more acceptable.
Metro’s leaders are planning for a system you’ll probably use less. Ridership continues to decline for a variety of reasons, but certainly an important one is that travelers are dissatisfied with the service.
Metro’s own surveys for 2016 showed the level of rail rider satisfaction at 66 percent, and bus rider satisfaction at 77 percent. (Metro’s target for each is 85 percent.) It’s a reason the transit authority adopted the modest slogan “Back2Good” for its 2017 service improvement campaign.
The satisfaction rate among the travelers who write to me is considerably lower. Some even say that public transit is all washed up, that the future belongs to driverless cars and that we should see the decline in transit ridership as inevitable.
I don’t believe that extreme view is widespread, and for backup, I cite the letter from David Ballard of Reston, a longtime — but not always happy — Metro rider who reviewed his experiences with the transit systems in five other cities.
While I appreciated his useful critique, I also enjoyed his enthusiasm for experimenting with the unfamiliar services. He doesn’t want to scrap transit in the Washington area. He just wants it to work more like some of the other systems he’s seen.
Here’s a follow-up from another transit enthusiast. I hope her joy in successfully exploring different ways of travel and sharing it with other people will lift some of the gloom surrounding Metro.
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I appreciated Mr. Ballard’s transit system comparison, and your reply [Local Living, March 2]. Public transport works really well for me.
In San Antonio, the clean, cool buses got me to all the historic missions and back to my hotel. In San Diego, the trolley got me to the old mission, well north of the city, and the bus got us to our hike over the high chaparral in Torrey Pines, through gridlocked traffic because of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the university that day.
In Seattle, the bus got me to the super ferries, which welcomed me aboard sans car, and got me to the islands, where a friendly shuttle boatman gave me a tour of the smaller islands and arranged for me to make the return super ferry trip as the captain’s guest up on the bridge.
In New York, no one lets me stand on the bus or subway. Once I inadvertently said out loud that I was on the wrong train, and the five strangers nearest me immediately gave me their full attention and figured out quickly that it was the correct train.
My favorite was Portland. We got off the plane and went to the kiosk to buy a pass. A staff member stopped us, welcomed us, and asked us where we were staying. She advised us that our hotel was inside the Free Rail Zone [ended, to much regret, in 2012], and that all we needed was a one-way ticket on the light rail, which would stop in front of our hotel.
For a week, we stepped on and off the trolley and light rail at will as we explored the beautiful city. We rented a car when we left to drive south to visit friends and redwoods.
Driving is work. I come from Baltimore to the District on the MARC train, at bargain rates. Metro works well for me, because I don’t depend on it as commuters must.
After his letter appeared, Ballard wrote back to tell me: “You are correct that I take public transportation in other cities all the time, but part of the reason for that is that I believe public transportation provides a unique window to understanding the place and its inhabitants.
“I love the window it provides, sometimes literally. So, other than in Mexico, where I truly was trying to get somewhere every time, my recent trips involved solo riding of the trains for the sake of riding the trains — and learning about where I was that way.”
We know there are barriers to trying transit. Just figuring out fares and destination signs can dampen enthusiasm — let alone the unreliable schedules that Metro riders complain about.
But even if Metro can overcome its customer service difficulties, it’s still going to need to attract tens of thousands of customers. For some travelers, that will involve the simple willingness to experiment with something unfamiliar.