The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Alan Heymann

Alan Heymann works in the public sector by day. He is a member of the incoming class of Leadership Montgomery and president of the Oakland Terrace Elementary School PTA. A vegan with a mild running habit, he lives in Montgomery County with his wife and daughter and their dog. Alan blogs at chasingminimalism.com. 

Transit


Sorry, Metro. Iíve been seeing someone else.

I broke up with Metro last month.


Photo by Jeannette E. Spaghetti on Flickr.

I used to commute from Montgomery County to the Navy Yard area every day, typically by the Red and Green lines with a transfer at Fort Totten. SafeTrack work on my section of the Red Line sent me looking around for alternatives. Driving was never an option, so I landed on MARC's Brunswick Line plus Capital Bikeshare.

I realize I'm not comparing apples to apples and that every commuter's situation is very different. But I've found a more comfortable, less stressful, and less expensive way to get to work and back. So I decided to stick with it instead of going back to Metro after the surge is over. (Apparently, I'm not alone.)

The MARC Kensington station is a bit closer to my house by bike than Metro's Forest Glen station, which is where I used to start my commute. There's an easily legible electronic sign with train status and the current time, facing in both directions. The trains are clean, comfortable and quiet. They're nearly always on time. The conductors stop to answer questions. And I've always gotten a seat facing in the direction of travel, even though I get on just two stops before the end of the line. There's even an online lost and found service! The monthly pass is slightly cheaper than the daily Metro fare, even if I only use it four times a week.

I've added a touch of grandeur to the daily experience, arriving and departing Daniel Burnham's classic working monument to transportation, Union Station, and biking past the Capitol too. I'm also getting an extra four miles of exercise a day, which is a blessing even on the sweatiest of DC days.

I realize I'm having what amounts to a boutique travel experience. The Brunswick line draws only about 8,000 commuters on a typical weekday. That's every single train from every single station. On Metro, about that many people get on trains every day just at the Archives station. So one form of mass transit is definitely more "mass" than the other.

And not that the new commuting reality is a perfect one.

I had multiple equipment failures, bike shortages, and dock blocking on Bikeshare in just three weeks of daily commutes, and bought a new foldable bike as a result. I'm adjusting to the reality of a small number of trains that leave at fixed times, and how that affects when I come and go. The MARC train departs on a different track every day from Union Station, resulting in a large clump of people staring at a monitor and then bolting for the doors. I don't understand why this happens. Likewise, you can't count on using the same train doors to get off every day. And my bike ride home from the station is nearly all uphill. But these are little things, compared to the big things I started to notice after nearly a year of riding Metro every day.

My relationship with Metro began nearly three decades ago, and I was smitten.

I remember coming to DC as an 8th-grader and marveling at how clean, modern, and quiet the subway system was. It left an imprint on my young mind at least as great as any monument or museum we visited. Knowing nothing at the time about transit operations or the populations they served, I held Metro up as the standard for judging all others.

Nearly three decades later, having lived in and around DC since 2000, I was a daily commuter at several points in my career. I silently saluted the public-sector employees who keep the system running, unrecognized until something goes wrong. I read the excellent Great Society Subway history of Metro, now a decade old. I continued to thank my lucky stars every day to be off the roads, free to read or send email or even take a nap. But I'd also grown weary of the frequent service interruptions, unexplained delays and general lack of communication with customers.

There was the evening a year ago when a few dozen of my fellow passengers and I were literally held against our will by Metro. We arrived by train at Forest Glen only to find the elevators disabled because of a fire alarm. There are no escalators because of the station's depth. We stood in the mezzanine between platforms, hearing nothing from the lone Metro employee behind a nearby glass door. Every train after ours was bypassing the station.


That time when I couldn't use the Forest Glen elevators, nor the stairs... it wasn't one of the good ones. Photo by Dan Malouff.

A good 15 minutes later, I finally asked him if I could take the stairs and go home. (The emergency exit door was marked with a warning that a 20-story climb lay ahead, but I am a reasonably fit person who runs the occasional half marathon.) He told me no, but declined to explain why. There was nowhere we could go, no explanation about what was happening, no sense of when it would end.

Finally, another 10 minutes or so later, we were all shepherded onto a train in the other direction and told to get off at Silver Spring for a shuttle. Nobody seemed to know where the shuttle was when we got there. We found it, more than a block away, and got on a bus with a driver who seemed more annoyed than we were. We arrived at the front entrance to Forest Glen a good 45 minutes after we'd gotten off the train in the first place. No apologies, no explanations.

I lost track of the number of times I've sat or stood on a train for minutes on end, abruptly stopped in a tunnel with no cell phone service, with no idea why. Sometimes there was no explanation. Sometimes the PA system is inaudible. And sometimes it was the equally useless "train moving momentarily" announcement. Even the fantastic and comfortable new 7000-series cars have an automated announcement that there is a train on the next platform, and we'll be moving when the train clears. Why does this happen so often that we need a pre-programmed script for it?

When there were station announcements, they seemed geared toward people who work at Metro and speak the lingo, not ordinary customers. As a regular rider, transit buff, resident of the DC area and native English speaker, I still failed to understand how and why some messages went out. "We are currently experiencing residual delays in the direction of..." First of all, "currently" is nothing but a redundant word. Secondly, what is a residual delay anyway? Nobody cares if the train that's supposed to arrive at 5:03 is arriving at 5:07, if they can just get on the one before it instead. Is there going to be crowding? More time between trains? Then say it that way. With elevator outages, customers don't care that there's one set out of service for short-term repairs and another for long-term capital reconstruction. That's for the WMATA planners and budgeters to worry about. Customers just want to know that the elevator's out today and where to go instead. So why make two sets of announcements?

There were the overcrowded cars, hot cars, cars that were dark and empty because they were out of service. The trains that seemed to go missing. The lurching forward, stopping and starting multiple times on the way into multiple stations. Some trips took many, many minutes longer than others of the same distance, a variation that seemed to have nothing to do with how long we stopped at each station. It was all still orders of magnitude better than driving, but Metro was often a jarring, sweaty, unpredictable experience.

I do see signs of hope.

New general manager Paul Wiedefeld's decision to close the entire rail system for a day on short notice got the region's attention. WMATA's communication about SafeTrack has been effective, from ads in newspapers and free media outreach to the woman who stood outside my home station leafleting and announcing the next week's service reduction. The administration seems more open to conversations with the public and the press, which is a very good thing. It's a tough line to walk when you're trying to get support for improvements but also trying to convince people that you know what you're doing. I've been impressed so far.

I'm hoping instead of having a permanent breakup, Metro and I will still be able to see each other once in awhile. In fact, I took the Red Line to meet up with my wife in Dupont Circle after work just the other day. But I'll stick to MARC for my daily trips to the office and back, and will continue peddling away on my new folding bike for the first and last miles.

Government


Be civil toward your government employees

Please, offer your nearest local government employee a hug or at least a handshake. Repeat often.


Photo by seanbjack on Flickr.

I recently took a job in the nonprofit sector after eight years of working in our local government. First as a Council staffer, then a mayoral aide, then an agency spokesperson and senior manager, I have worked with hundreds of my fellow District residents in resolving their issues big and small.

I've been involved with everything from purchase orders to potholes, legislation to liquor licenses and most recently, DC Water's massive engineering solution to the flooding problems that have plagued Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park for generations.

In doing this work, I've met plenty of incredibly kind and supportive people both inside and outside the government. Some have even become lifelong friends. But like many of my colleagues, I've also taken a beating from plenty of constituents or customers.

Especially when hidden behind a keyboard, some people apparently feel free to unload their frustrations in ways that far overshoot the bounds of civility.

Over just the past several months, my agency and I have been called insulting, negligent, cowardly, incompetent, inadequate, frustrating, cheap, clueless, mouthpieces, cowardly, villains, obstructionist, inferior, demeaning, unwilling, empty and inconsequential. My boss, a member of my staff and I were told repeatedly and publicly that we should resign or be fired. Note that all of this came from a single customer.

My message to those who say things like this is simple: knock it off. Government isn't something that happens to people without their active involvement, and government employees are not the help. When they fail you or give you an answer you don't like, they're not working to make your life less pleasant on purpose.

At their best, I believe this is a group of people called to serve a greater good. Even at their worst, even if only motivated by a desire to earn a paycheck at a steady and stable job, they deserve no more ire or disrespect than any other professional in a different line of work. Would you direct words like these at a doctor, a grocery cashier or a dog walker? Hardly.

The other problem with this uncivil discourse is that it tends to be aimed squarely at people who either didn't cause the problem or are actively trying to fix it. Taking the present management of an agency to task for something their predecessors didn't do decades ago is neither fair nor wise—especially when they are doing it now.

It is not the DMV clerk's fault that the law requires a certain type of document to prove your identity. And the workers standing calf-deep in cold water to fix the pipe outside your house didn't cause it to break and interrupt your water service. Yelling at them not only demoralizes people who are working to help, but distracts them from doing the actual helping. Folks, it's really time to stop berating the surgical team while they're standing over the bleeding patient.

What if we instead approached our public servants with kindness, patience and gratitude? My suspicion is that we'd end up with happier people, less burnout and better government as a result.

It has been nearly 8 years, but I will always remember the words of one particularly grateful constituent in Columbia Heights long after I forget her name or the service I performed on her behalf. She wrote, "You have single-handedly restored my faith in the institution of government."

At the time, I took great comfort in her words and hung them on my cubicle wall as a shining example of what I wished I heard more often. Today, I realize that if one's faith—or lack of faith—in the institution of government depends on the actions of a single person, government's relationship to its constituents is precarious at best. Even though improving that relationship isn't my job as an employee anymore, it will always be my job as a private citizen.

And I owe those on the other side of the service window, the phone line or the email inbox the same courtesy I hope they will extend to me.

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