Katherine Kortum is someone many Washingtonians have probably never heard of. But if they care about Metro and transportation, they should: She’s the president of the Riders’ Advisory Council (RAC), a volunteer body that’s been around since September 2005.
Kortum, 35, is a wonk’s wonk. A Texan by birth, she moved back and forth across the Rust Belt as her father’s career followed ups and downs in the oil industry. As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, she wanted to be an architect but didn’t like how “subjective” the field was; she preferred STEM, where there is such a thing as a “right answer.” So Kortum became a civil engineer, doing graduate work at the University of Texas on car2go and car-sharing.
After settling in D.C. — where she works as a transportation engineer for the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board (TRB) — Kortum ditched her car. In 2014, she joined Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council, which almost met its demise at the hands of its creator last year.
Kortum hopes the RAC, now under new bylaws and with fewer members, can become a more effective voice for the millions of riders — about 610,000 on Metrorail and 370,000 on Metrobus every weekday — who use the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). On Wednesday, the monthly discussed Metro’s plan to revitalize its bus service.
In a recent 90-minute, 90-mph chat, Kortum discussed the RAC and a variety of related subjects, including Metro general manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s report card, the beauty of subway maps on ceilings, the absurdity of “Stand Clear,” and why it’s time Americans ditch the gas tax for a tax based on mileage.
Q: Besides finding architecture to be a little too artsy, what made you decide to become a civil engineer?
A: I like the idea of somebody who makes the world go around without other people even realizing it. People don’t think about civil engineering until something breaks. But we’re the ones who make cities and urban life possible. And there’s so much happening under and behind the walls that people are not aware of.
Q: Why transportation?
A: Traffic, in particular, seems in many cases almost to be a living organism. It has a life of its own — you can’t always predict what will happen. There’s so much human interaction with the system when it comes to transportation, and it’s not [the case] when it’s just a static building.
Q: How do you get around?
A: The vast majority of what I do is transit. Bike-Share is probably the second most common thing I use. I rent a Zipcar [to get out of town]. I’m also a regular user of Greyhound, Megabus, Bolt Bus and Amtrak for traveling all over the place. There’s certainly a financial benefit to transit, to not owning a car, especially when you live centrally.
Q: How often do you use Metro?
A: Probably 10 to 15 times a month.
Q: Do you use Uber or Lyft or another ride-hailing service?
A: Sometimes. I use it more when I’m traveling than when I’m home.
Q: So why should people care about the RAC?
A: The RAC is a direct line to WMATA. WMATA has a reputation — in my opinion, a well-deserved reputation in recent years — for relative lack of transparency and not necessarily always putting the rider first. And the RAC is the one voice in this region that puts the riders first.
Q: What made you want to join the RAC?
A: I may have just been looking for more information about WMATA, and I came across its Riders’ Advisory Council, and I thought it seemed intriguing. So, my rule of thumb — which has mostly served me well over life — is to apply for everything.
Q: What was your first impression of the RAC?
A: It was an interesting cross section of people from all over the DMV — people I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I got to hear from WMATA staff about upcoming services that I wouldn’t have necessarily known about without being involved. As a transit junkie, that was particularly fascinating.
Q: What’s the RAC’s most significant contribution?
A: I think that they have been a way for the public to get more of an insight into WMATA’s decisions. Whether public comments at the RAC are truly changing the minds of WMATA staff and board members, I’m not sure. But at least it’s an entree into the system.
Q: It sounds as if WMATA uses the RAC to let the public know what WMATA’s thinking more than the other way around, correct?
A: What WMATA people are telling us they’re thinking anyway. Certainly, there’s a lot of information that we don’t get and we don’t have. But we get more detailed information on a regular basis that isn’t necessarily available to the general public.
Q: Do you feel that WMATA is interested in hearing what the RAC has to say? Your face says no.
A: My face and my experience both say no.
We, as RAC members, have often provided suggestions, not only on specific incidents that have occurred — we provide our feedback on how certain incidents have been handled, the communication that went out — but we also often provide feedback on fare proposals or service route changes and other ideas WMATA will throw out.
We often get very little feedback, if any, on those recommendations.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: I think it was last year, but we provided a series of customer service recommendations. It started when we visited a customer service center in Maryland. We spoke with a lot of folks there [and] talked to the head of the customer service center.
We had essentially a field trip, and then we provided quite a few recommendations on how WMATA could improve their customer service — everything from standardizing what the operators are saying in the trains to making sure the automated announcements on the buses are up to date, which often they are not.
Q: What were your recommendations?
A: One had to do with getting feedback when somebody does call the customer service center with an issue — whether that person ever receives feedback on whether something was done.
Within 72 hours, somebody should get some response from WMATA about the issue they had: what was done, what will be done, if they had a question, did they get an answer.
Q: So what happened to your eight-page report?
A: Most of our recommendations, it turned out, actually were already WMATA policy. [These were] when station managers were supposed to be talking to customers in the stations, when they were supposed to be in or out of their booths, ways that announcements were supposed to be made.
When we did provide the recommendations to WMATA, they said, “Well, many of these are already current WMATA policy.”
To which we said: “As regular passengers of the system, your policies are not always being followed. Perhaps there needs to be more emphasis that the standards you do have in place are being carried out throughout the system.”
Q: Then what?
A: Nothing. We didn’t really hear back from WMATA staff, other than to say a lot of your suggestions are policies that are already on the books.
Q: And what was your reaction to WMATA’s reaction?
Q: Besides making recommendations that go into Metro’s black hole, you mentioned that one of your pet peeves is that some Metrorail announcements, such as “Stand clear,” make no sense, correct?
A: It drives me bonkers. What does that mean?
Frequent riders, we know that that means “hold on, because the train is going to move.” But “stand clear” means nothing to most people.
“Hold on,” “Back up” — use a phrase that actually means something to people, not just your standard WMATA-ese. Use simple terminology.
Q: What other things bother you?
A: Signage in the stations could often be improved, especially the ones with multiple entrances and exits. Better signage indicating, “Go this way to the exit that has this, go this way to the exit that has that.”
These are not expensive things. Improving the signs — and more signs, frankly — would go a long way.
Q: What else?
A: More maps within the station would help. Put the maps on the ceiling.
Q: Excuse me?
A: [In some German transit systems], within the trains, above the doors, on the ceiling — they have the Metro map.
No matter where you are, you can see it, as opposed to just one or two maps on the wall the way we have it on WMATA, where if the train is at all crowded you can’t see it. Tourists have to shove past people or peer around people to look at it, and the regular users are trying to look like they’re not using it so they don’t look like a tourist.
Q: Which members of Metro’s board seem interested in what the RAC is doing?
A: I think one of our most engaged members is Christian Dorsey of Arlington. He feels very strongly that the RAC ought to continue to exist as a strong riders’ representative group. [The recent bylaw changes created a Board liaison to the RAC, and Dorsey has been appointed to that role.]
Q: Have you heard from board members who would rather the RAC cease to exist?
A: We have heard statements like that from the chair, Jack Evans. I believe that is his position. But he may well also be representing other board members. So I’m not sure how much is coming from him and how much is him representing the WMATA board.
Q: Has Evans [who is also a D.C. Council member] ever come to a RAC meeting?
A: Not lately. He may have at some point. But I can’t recall.
Q: What should Metro do to make the RAC more effective?
A: For starters I would publicize it better. I think the vast majority of this city, and even WMATA users, have no idea that there is a Riders’ Advisory Council — that they are being represented by a group of us who have a relatively direct line to WMATA staff and board members, much more so than the average rider does.
I think some of that could be helped by live-streaming in some way, whether by video or by phone, making it easier for people to attend.
Q: The current bylaws give WMATA control over selecting RAC members, which makes some people wonder if that doesn’t limit the RAC’s effectiveness — i.e. Metro might be reluctant to seat RAC members who could act like watchdogs with some bite. What do you think?
A: I would like for RAC members themselves to be involved in the selection process. Among other things, I think it would be helpful when a person is deciding whether to join the RAC to hear from current members what it’s like. It’s not the same to hear from staff as it is to hear from the volunteers.
Q: How can we in the media do better?
A: There was a fair amount of media coverage of the RAC in the last couple of months when it looked like the RAC was going to disappear, in its death throes. There tends not to be a lot of coverage from the media of the group [otherwise].
Q: Does the RAC also reach out to the media?
A: We don’t do it enough. There could be more cooperation [both ways] with the media. We’re a small, mostly unknown group that flies under the radar. And given the relative lack of power that we have, that doesn’t shock me.
Q: How do you rate general manager Paul J. Wiedefeld?
A: On the whole, I would say he was an excellent choice for GM. For a while, we had him coming in approximately quarterly. So approximately every three or four meetings, Paul Wiedefeld would come and speak to the group at least at the first part of the meeting.
He rarely told us anything earth-shattering that we hadn’t already heard. But he would give us his insight. I thought it was a very positive sign that we had the GM coming to talk to our group. That seemed to fade after a while.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: I don’t have a good answer there. He certainly has plenty of issues on his plate.
Q: What could Wiedefeld do to make the RAC better?
A: It doesn’t have to be quarterly, but it would be lovely if it were a regular thing [for him to visit], in part because then the public and the media would know Paul J. Wiedefeld is going to there and talking fairly informally to the public. And this is an opportunity to talk to him, to get up close and personal with him.
Q: What should Metro do to reverse falling ridership?
A: As a rider, I very much wish that they would go to expanded service — both in terms of hours and amount of service during current opening hours. I know that [Wiedefeld] has limited service in large part for maintenance issues. And I do respect that.
But as a rider, it is frustrating to have the much more limited service as compared to a few years ago. The idea that on the weekends in one of the largest cities in this country that we don’t have a functioning subway until 8 in the morning is disappointing.
Q: What was your reaction when a Metro board member said it would be “crazy” to run more trains in off-peak hours chasing additional riders?
A: I strongly disagree with that position. I think that is a viable position to hold if we were running an entirely for-profit corporation here. We are not.
No transit system, certainly in this country, and hardly any transit systems in the world, make money. Transit is not intended to make money. Transit is intended to make a city run. And the marginal cost of running additional service during exiting operating hours is quite low.
Certainly, the biggest thing driving customers away from WMATA these days is lack of service — not enough service when people want to use it, especially weeknights and weekends.
Q: Yet wouldn’t that mean asking Metro’s jurisdictional partners to pick up the tab, including those who have many residents that never ride Metro?
A: I can understand the concern, particularly from a lot of people who do not live in an area where they are well served by Metro and for whom the transit system is something other people use.
But I think that transit is such an integral part of what makes any city work. I think people don’t fully appreciate all the transit system does to make this city work.
Q: In addition to more trains, what else should Metro do to win back riders?
A: Improve communications and transparency. Whenever there’s an incident on WMATA, 30 minutes later — or a period of time after the incident --- they say there may be delays on the Red Line due to an incident at Medical Center or whatever.
It’s one thing if a train needed to be offloaded; it’s another thing if a train hit a human on the tracks and it’s going to be a while.
Customers would like to have more information so they know whether they need to come up with an alternative. They want to know what they’re getting into if they walk down and see a crowded platform: “Is this a one-time thing, or is this going to be an all-morning adventure?”
[WMATA] should be more honest. “There are residual delays” is not a particularly helpful piece of information for commuters to have because there are always residual delays. We want to be treated less like cargo and more like sentient human beings.
Q: What else should Metro do to improve service?
A: I would also like to see better use of passes: weekly passes, monthly passes, day passes, all kinds of different passes. At the moment, WMATA is a pay-by-trip system. There are passes out there, but they’re not exceptionally well publicized. I think most people don’t know what all the options are.
Our fare system and our fare machines are not especially user-friendly, particularly for people who are not familiar with our system or who are coming from systems that use flat fares.
Q: Are you suggesting a move to flat fares?
A: No. In order to just make the math work, the flat fare that would bring in the same amount of income as the current system would have to be quite high, which means that those coming in from Shady Grove, Vienna, are paying much less than those who are going three stops within the city. And that doesn’t seem fair, either.
Q: How do you think Amazon HQ2′s move to Arlington will affect Metro and the region?
A: I think we’re going to get a few new entrances to new transit stations — specially at Potomac Yard and Crystal City — that we were not going to have before, and that’s always a good thing.
But I don’t think it’s going to have as big an effect on the region as initially thought, especially when we thought we were going to have twice as many people. I think 25,000 extra jobs in a region of 6 million isn’t going to have as a dramatic effect as people think it’s going to be. It’s going to be a drop in the bucket to D.C.
Q: What about the impact on Metro?
A: I think there will be more ridership. But assuming every single Amazon employee who ever shows up here — all 25,000 of them — ride Metro, is 25,000 going to be that big of a deal?
I think the biggest issues WMATA may face are very localized, very specific.
Q: My first thought about the announcement was, I pity Blue, Orange and Silver Line riders.
A: They call it Orange Crush for a reason.
Q: What’s your view of the D.C. Council’s decision to decriminalize fare evasion?
A: I agree that it should be decriminalized. I wish fare evasion were not a thing. I certainly wish it didn’t happen. However, I don’t think they should go to jail for not paying the fare. I don’t see what’s wrong with [parking tickets] as an analogy.
Q: What do you say to Metro’s concern that decriminalizing fare evasion — and without a realistic way to enforce even the new civil penalty — is going to lead to more fare evasion and crime?
A: I see the concerns — that it will be a suddenly lawless atmosphere with people just hopping turnstiles left and right — as unfounded. Most people are not going to hop the fare gates.
Q: What’s your view of the impact of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services on Metro? Should Metro be working with ride-hailing or against it?
A: I have done a lot of research and a lot of work on ride-hailing and transit and coordination between the two. I am a fan of ride-hailing.
At first, I believe [transit and ride-hailing] saw each other as pure competition. It was a zero sum game: “If you get this rider, then I don’t,” and vice versa. They’re beginning to cooperate more. I think there is a potential for a lot of synergy between the two.
Q: You mentioned that the way Americans fund transportation should be changed. Why?
A: The gas tax just doesn’t bring in enough. A VMT [vehicle miles traveled] tax is the way to go.
Q: Wouldn’t that cause many motorists to scream about the extra costs?
A: The intention of switching from a gas tax to a vehicle miles tax is at first it would be a wash. It would not cost you any more. For just about every driver, it’s going to be the same cost — you’re just paying it in a different way. Then you could be more nuanced in the way you pay.
Q: How so?
A: [At first] everybody pays 2.3 cents per mile no matter where they travel, no matter when they travel, no matter what they’re traveling in. But then you can start to say the Hummers will pay more than the Priuses. If you travel between 7 and 9 in the morning, you pay a little more. If you travel in certain zones, you pay a little more because they’re heavily congested and we’re trying to price things appropriately.
Q: Do you think the American driver is ready for a system like this?
A: As a civil engineer it is utterly fascinating and frustrating to me that the general public, at least in this country, is absolutely willing to pay for every other utility that makes a city work. You don’t blink at having to pay a water bill. And yet transportation is still expected to be free, despite the fact it is every bit a utility, the same as all these other services.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like add?
A: With all of the challenges that WMATA has, and the fact that we frequent users see plenty to complain about, WMATA is still one of the best systems in the country. The vast majority of rides still work. They get you where you need to go with minimal muss and fuss. The problem is when it doesn’t. Those are the stories that get amplified, and those are where WMATA suffers from a lack of transparency.
Read more Tripping: