Posts by Michael Perkins
|Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.|
Many major transit systems offer a "service guarantee" policy where riders get a free trip or a refund if there are severe delays, but WMATA's policy is much more limited. After repeated rail delays, some riders are demanding a better deal.
Rockville resident Dave Tucker recently complained to WMATA on Twitter after his train was evacuated due to brake problems. Officials replied that they were "prohibited from providing fare adjustments for delays caused by mechanical problems and other conditions beyond [Metro's] control," Tucker reported, but as a "gesture of goodwill," they gave Tucker two free one-way passes.
WMATA's current "service guarantee" policy falls short of best practices in other cities. During major delays, you can leave from your original station without paying, but only if station agents allow it. Metro should make its policy more flexible.
If you get trapped behind a stalled train for an hour halfway to your destination, you have two options. One is to stay put and hope you get there, all while paying full price. The other is to try and return to your origin, maybe be able to exit without paying, and then try to get to your destination another way.
Plus, are mechanical problems really beyond Metro's control? Only if they're caused by "acts of God" or by customers jamming the doors. More often than not, mechanical failure happens because of insufficient maintenance or sloppy inspections. Those are WMATA's fault, and when they result in delays, customers deserve refunds.
Other major transit systems offer customers a free future trip if they are delayed for a certain length of time. Philadelphia's SEPTA offers a free trip to riders after 50 minutes, while Boston's MBTA will give you a free trip after just 30 minutes.
Transport for London's service guarantee program goes even further, giving refunds to any customer after a 15-minute delay. Arlington resident Samer Farha explained his experiences during a recent trip to London, where he used Oyster card, their equivalent of SmarTrip. According to Farha, when his trip was delayed, Transport for London (TfL) emailed him to apologize. TfL told him the refund would go back on his card the next time he entered the system. Farha could even log in to TfL's website and choose which station he wanted to credit to go to.
With Metro's current state of repair, a 15-minute window might be a little aggressive, but the agency could at least allow customers to request a refund for delays of 30 minutes or more.
Metro should also let customers leave from the station they entered from, without having to wait for officials to declare a "major delay," as long as they leave within 30 minutes. If you bail out because the train is taking too long, what does it matter how long the delay is? You haven't used Metro for transportation, and shouldn't pay anything.
If WMATA has to refund customers when it's at fault, that could give employees and officials alike an incentive to start making the system more reliable. The number of customer refunds could become a performance metric which goes in reports to the WMATA board.
Metro promises its riders a safe, reliable means of transportation, though it doesn't always deliver. A service guarantee would acknowledge that they make mistakes and respect their customers' time and money.
Starting Monday, Metrorail riders can purchase a "short trip" pass online or at a fare machine and apply it to their SmarTrip cards. It's a big improvement for Metro customers that commute regularly and use Metro on the weekends or for additional trips in the evenings.
The pass costs $35 and is good for one week. It covers all off-peak trips and the first $3.50 of peak trips. If you take a trip costing more than $3.50, the difference comes out of the stored value on your SmarTrip.
Metro already offers SmarTrip passes that give rail riders unlimited rides of any length. Those cost $15 for one day, $57.50 for a week and $230 for 28 days. Those are useful for riders taking longer, more expensive trips. But those who only ride a few stops won't find that pass worthwhile. These new "short trip" passes are much cheaper because they don't cover long trips that riders may not need.
"Short trip" passes were previously available only as a paper farecard. If you took a trip of more than $3.50, you would have to use the Exitfare machine to pay the exact fare when leaving. Putting the pass on a SmarTrip card is much more convenient for riders who take the occasional longer trip, because the faregates can automatically calculate and deduct the extra fare.
Next, consider discounts and even passes for even shorter trips
You can also subscribe online to have the pass automatically renew when the old one is about to expire. For some riders, this is a good option. But since the pass costs the equivalent of 10 rides, it's not such a good deal that you'd want to set it and forget it, which could mean you'd end up buying one even on weeks with work holidays or vacation. I'd like to see a monthly pass with a discount, so that more riders would find it worthwhile to just buy passes automatically even around holidays.
Now that Metro's figured out how to implement a pass where people pay and get trips under a certain amount free, they could even try offering passes with a threshold below $3.50. For example, a pass that costs $100 per month and allows all trips under $2.50 each way for free might be very popular among riders that live in DC.
Give credit for bus transfers
One downside to the "short trip" pass is that it doesn't discount transfers between bus and rail. WMATA representatives have previously said that allowing transfer discounts to pass holders would be like giving discounts on top of discounts.
However, the transfer discount used to be available for pass holders when WMATA used paper transfer slips. When the WMATA Board approved replacing them with SmarTrip tracking, there was no discussion about eliminating the discount as well.
The discount isn't really a "discount," anyway. It's a recognition that a trip that uses bus and rail is really one trip on two modes, and the fare probably shouldn't be the same as two totally separate trips. You don't pay double the rail fare if you transfer between rail lines. In many cities, like New York, a bus plus rail trip costs the same as just one trip alone.
WMATA should restore the transfer discounts for all pass holders, and give riders with a rail pass the same reduced fare on the bus as any rider coming from a rail trip. Similarly, all riders should get the same fare when they transfer from bus to rail, whether or not they have a Metrobus pass.
All in all, "short trip" passes on SmarTrip are a great option, and I expect to subscribe to them in the future.
Nearly every Metro fare machine has a paper sign on it: "Using a paper farecard? Add $1 to every trip." Yet even with this reminder, some riders get stuck at the faregates, wondering why Metro won't let them leave.
Most people riding Metro use SmarTrip, and that's great. But the ones that are more likely to need extra help with a fare table are the infrequent customers that use a paper farecard.
It makes no sense to list SmarTrip prices on the fare table and then ask people to add $1. Riders shouldn't need to do math to figure out how much to put on their farecards. We want to make purchasing a farecard as easy as possible, while not necessarily offering them the best deal possible.
The simplest solution would be to list the paper farecard prices on the tables, and then have notes that SmarTrip riders get a discount. Even if these riders don't notice, they'll just end up with extra money on their cards, which they can use later.
An even better approach would be to eliminate the $1 surcharge, and instead always charge peak fares for people using paper farecards. The fare machines would simply list the peak fare for each destination, with a note that SmarTrip customers get discounts during off-peak, discounted transfers to and from trips on buses, protected fare balances (with registration) and a guarantee that they won't be trapped in the system if their balance goes too low.
All paper farecard customers would have to do is look up their destination, and make sure their farecard had the corresponding amount. No math, no timetables, no figuring out whether it's currently peak or off-peak.
WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel said the agency is aware of the confusion and complaints about these signs, and is "considering" making changes to the posted fare tables and signs.
This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.
Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.
Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.
Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.
The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.
When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."
"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.
In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.
A Metro rider, Barbara, wrote in to Unsuck DC Metro about a problem where she added funds to SmarTrip online but then still couldn't go through a faregate. What's going on is one of the unfortunate consequences of the 1990s-era faregate systems WMATA is still using.
I had added funds online on March 4. I didn't use my card before March 18, and when I did, I had to realize that there was still only 20 cents on my card, and the $50 I had added at the beginning of the month were nowhere to be seen. ...
I couldn't use them for riding because the funds wouldn't load, and I couldn't even go through the turnstile with them. So, what I did was use my credit card to add $20 to my card (I didn't have any cash on me), entered Foggy Bottom, exited at Ballston and: voilà! there were $68 on my card all of a sudden.
This is obviously frustrating to infrequent riders who load up funds ahead of time for when they ride, or use automatic loading to ensure their card is never low on funds. But the automatic or remote loading may not work.
This happens because of the way the (fairly outdated) SmarTrip system works. When you add funds to your SmarTrip card online or automatically, the funds don't appear in your Smartrip account immediately because your balance is actually stored encrypted on the card rather than on a computer.
Adding funds online sends an instruction to the SmarTrip system to watch for your card. The next time a faregate or bus farebox reads your card, it will have information about what you added, and will load the funds onto your card.
The load instructions get copied to faregates and bus fareboxes throughout the system, but because these machines are not in constant communication (like bus fareboxes), it may take several days for the instructions to reach a farebox you use.
But Barbara waited more than a few days. What happened? She wrote:
I called SmarTrip, and they didn't have a plausible explanation: All I learned was that this could happen "with infrequent use of the card." What the heck does that mean? It shouldn't matter how frequently I use the cardHere's what's going on. The faregates have their list of SmarTrip cards that are waiting for new funds already loaded online. Unfortunately, the outdated faregates have limited computer memory (that fact restricted peak-of-the-peak, for example). They can only store so many load instructions.
— it's my money on there, it's just not in my bank any longer, it's on their card!
Spokesperson Dan Stessel said:
Each target [the SmarTrip computer system in the faregates] can hold a maximum of 85,000 auto loads. When that number is exceeded, the system has to localize, meaning the system will send your auto load purchase to every station you've used in the past month.Furthermore, based on the SmarTrip customer service response, it sounds like if you load online but then don't use the system soon after, newer load instructions may crowd yours out.
Either the Ballston gate had the instruction and Foggy Bottom did not. (Barbara said that she lives in Arlington, so Ballston is probably the station she uses most.) Alternately, once Barbara loaded her card at a machine and then entered the rail system, the central system retransmitted her load instruction to the faregates. Then when she exited, the gate at Ballston knew to add her funds.
This whole mechanism of getting the load instruction onto the faregates ahead of time is fairly messy. It would be better if, when you went onto the system, the faregate could just check your balance with a central server, but the faregates don't have a high-speed, always-on connection to a central server to accomplish this.
WMATA is studying new fare payment systems. Any new system ought to fix this irritating problem, but it may be quite some time before a new system actually comes on line.
Meanwhile, it might make sense for more infrequent riders to use the vending machines, especially if they let their cards get very low.
For years, WMATA has been proposing budgets with ever-increasing rail service. The approved FY 2013 budget has almost 8.4 million miles of scheduled railcar service, almost double the amount scheduled in FY 1997.
So why does it feel like the amount of service is actually declining? Because it is. According to figures reported to the Federal Transit Administration National Transit Database, Metro's rail service hit a peak in 2009 and has decreased almost 6% since:
It's actually part of a long pattern where Metro would propose a higher level of service to the Board of Directors, but then the actual amount of service delivered is substantially lower. For FY 2002 until FY 2008, Metro would determine the actual amount and update the chart in the following year's budget. Each year, the amount of promised service would look like a big increase compared to previous years'.
In 2009, this practice stopped. Metro now no longer updates the budget document with the actual amount of service. Metro still reports the actual amount of service to the NTD, and the shortfall has grown to 18% of the proposed service level as of 2011.
Recently, The Washington Examiner reported a drop in ridership of about 5% compared to last year. In my opinion, the combination of decreasing ridership, decreasing service and increasing fares carries the specter of a transit "death spiral," where service cuts reduce revenue, forcing greater fare increases, which in turn drives more people away from transit.
Note: I reached out to WMATA for comment earlier this week and initially planned to give them until Monday to respond. However, I also told the blogger behind Unsuck DC Metro about this issue so we could collaborate, with what I thought was an agreement not to publish this information yet; Unsuck went live this morning with a post based on the information I gave, so we are publishing now. If we get a response from WMATA, we will update this post.
Yesterday, WMATA announced in a press release that its expenses were lower than predicted during the 2012 fiscal year, which ended in June. The transit system took in $2 million less in fare revenue than it expected, but spent $30 million less.
The savings comes in part from lower fuel and energy costs and an audit of which Metro workers' dependents were eligible for health care. The agency also spent less on MetroAccess after recent moves cut down on how many people use paratransit service.
WMATA proposes applying this surplus, plus other reductions in costs, to reduce the amount of funding it will need from jurisdictions. The last estimate put its funding need for FY2014 (July 2013-June 2014) at $76 million, and along with other savings and expected funding grants, this reduces it to $27 million.
Nearly every year, labor and benefits costs increase based on WMATA's labor agreements, determined by arbitration, and some other costs like fuel and energy have also often increased. Meanwhile, fares don't automatically increase, and area jurisdictions don't automatically promise to put in more money each year to cover rising costs.
This creates a small projected deficit in the first public iterations of the WMATA budget. Most years, the jurisdictions have agreed to increase the amount of operating funding they provide, but that is always in doubt until they pass their final budgets in the spring, and in some years executives of Virginia, Maryland or DC have threatened to withhold funding.
The current WMATA board policy states that fare increases should only occur every other year, though severe budgets in the recession has led to fare increases even in some consecutive years. A particularly bad shortfall led to a mid-year increase in 2010 to close an unexpected drop in revenue. If WMATA does not get enough funding from jurisdictions and decides not to increase fares, then it must consider service cuts in order to balance the budget.
This surplus could also complicate WMATA's position in negotiations with its largest labor union. While WMATA argues that it cannot afford to increase wages and be the sole contributor to pension funds, it is also announcing a surplus over the previous year of operation. Arbitrators, not WMATA or local governments, set wage and benefits levels.
The arbitration panel could decide that Metro's financial position is not that bad, and may reject the idea of holding wages constant or requiring Local 689 workers to contribute to pension funds. These costs would increase the projected shortfall, and would require additional funds from governments or riders to keep the budget balanced.
Calling this a "surplus" may mislead some riders. It does not mean that Metro "made money" in 2012, but rather that its budget projections were gloomier than reality. Similarly, DC Public Schools might conceivably spend less one year than projected and end up with a surplus, but it's still getting most of its money from the District's general budget, not turning a profit from education.
It does, however, seem that WMATA could have told its board or the public about this a little earlier. Kytja Weir writes in the Examiner,
Metro had known it probably would have a surplus before finalizing the fare increases and higher subsidies. But Chief Financial Officer Carol Dillon Kissal said that she couldn't use the savings then because it was only a forecast. ...It might have been possible to raise fares less. On the other hand, budgeting too conservatively just leads to a surplus, while budgeting too aggressively can force a sudden mid-year service cut or fare hike to fill an unexpected hole. In some past years, board members did more to pressure the agency to estimate higher. Sometimes that worked out, and riders saved money; other times, it led to last-minute crises.
Metro typically presents a stark forecast with a budget hole that needs to be filled with increased fares, service cuts or higher subsidies. But it was the second year in a row that Metro ended the year with a multi-million dollar surplus. In a report released last week, the agency said it had a $46 million surplus in the previous fiscal year.
This is only the beginning of WMATA's budget season. Over the next 7-8 months, WMATA staff, the board, and the public will discuss budget. Staff will first present the board with its forecasts for FY2014 (July 2013-June 2014), and CEO Richard Sarles will propose a budget in January. After that, the board will decide on whether to send any fare increase or service cut proposals to the public for comment around March, and in May or June will approve the budget for the coming year.
WMATA spokespeople did not yet return a call for comment from late this morning.
WMATA's board put off approving a headway policy in July, amid criticism that it set too low a bar. The board will take up the issue this fall. It's good for Metro to define a specific headway policy, as many other transit systems do, but that policy needs to be clearer so that elected officials, taxpayers and riders know for sure what level of service their money buys.
Today, Metro's only headway policy is in the annual budget. The budget lays out the normal headway for each train line during rush and mid-day non-rush. The board approves the budget in June, and the staff writes the normal service schedule based on it. For rush periods, the minimum headway is not usually enough for the number of riders, so Metro adds trains and adjusts to meet the demand.
However, the annual budget doesn't specify the policy for headway before the peak period starts. It doesn't define when in the day the peak period headway applies. It also doesn't mandate any headway in the evening and at night. For example, Metro currently schedules trains every 20 minutes at night, but the budget only lists a maximum 15-minute headway.
Also, the headway policy is not part of the draft budget the board circulates to riders for public comment. It's only after the final budget is published, long after approval, that people can see Metro's policy.
Metro is trying to fix this by writing down a headway policy for board approval. Like the budget, though, the first version of the policy did not have enough detail. Metro staff proposed a maximum headway of 15 minutes during rush, and 30 minutes otherwise. They said verbally that the policy would apply to service during scheduled track maintenance, but there was nothing in the draft that made this explicit.
Some staff tell me that the suggested 15-minute headway during rush hour could have been anticipating service changes when the Silver Line opens. We don't really know, and Metro hasn't specified their plan for Silver Line service. If Metro plans to only provide service every 15 minutes during rush to any part of the system after that, riders and policymakers should have that discussion more openly than as part of a vague maximum headway policy.
What would make a better headway policy?
A good headway policy would have two key elements.
First, it would specifically delineate the minimum headway for regularly scheduled service, for all times of day and all lines. That way, board members and the public will know what level of service we are paying for. The annual budget should incorporate the headway policy, with a draft available by March when the budget comes up for debate.
Second, it would establish a minimum headway policy for planned maintenance. Metro won't be planning maintenance during peak periods, so a peak headway policy doesn't make sense here. The policy would be useful in deciding what kind of shutdown to use for track maintenance. If single tracking causes the planned maintenance headway to be too long, it would be better to completely shut down the segment and use shuttle buses.
With these elements in the policy, everyone can have clear expectations, and the General Manager can handle the details of how and when to provide regular service and scheduled maintenance within well-defined parameters.
This coming Monday, the Arlington County Board will vote to either approve or reject the Columbia Pike streetcar.
The board will select a preferred alternative from among the options considered in its alternatives analysis. The other options are to run more buses, or do nothing.
The streetcar option is Arlington's best choice. It will redevelop Columbia Pike into a walkable urban neighborhood, it will increase transit ridership far beyond the bus options, and it is affordable.
A proposal before the WMATA Board tomorrow would define a new, formal standard for the minimum acceptable service level. But it sets the bar far too low: 15 minutes during peak times, and 30 minutes off-peak.
Another proposal would a establish passengers per car loading thresholds of 120 people maximum and 80 people minimum.
Having a standard is a good idea. It formalizes decisions such as where to put the 8-car trains or how to adjust schedules to meet customer demand. Formally defined service criteria also let customers and regional governments know what to expect from Metro. But Metro should never find service this infrequent to be acceptable.
Customers should expect better than a train every 15 minutes during the peak, and better than 30 minutes during off-peak. One of the most important factors for customers is frequent service. In the words of transportation writer Jarrett Walker, "Frequency is Freedom." Low frequency means people wait longer for trains, wait longer for connections, and have to build in extra time in their schedules if they connect to buses.
This is just a minimum, and it doesn't mean Metro will cut service tomorrow, but Metro should never allow service to get anywhere near this infrequent outside of planned or unplanned track work (and even then, such frequencies are a burden for riders).
The 2012 budget calls for service every 6 minutes for every line during peak periods (and provides even more frequent service in the core where lines double up), and every 12-15 minutes during non-peak periods. This new standard would reduce the amount of service that Metro considers the minimum allowable.
Most troubling is that the presentation says that the Board would delegate authority to the General Manager/CEO to make minor service changes based on the service criteria. That could let the GM/CEO reduce service to this unacceptably low level without asking.
Standards could lead to less off-peak service
This authority also means that there are consistently fewer than 80 passengers per railcar on a route, he could start cutting service. A railcar typically has about 60 seats.
The thresholds for passengers per car also need adjusting. During peak times, customers expect railcars to be crowded, and in any case there often isn't anything Metro can do about crowded trains because there aren't any extra railcars available. But during off-peak times, Metro has options to reduce railcar loading (longer trains, more frequent trains), and Metro is competing against less congested roads and more available parking.
It doesn't make sense to expect customers to pack onto trains that are as crowded during non-peak times. Metro's presentation says that staff is looking into establishing other thresholds for off-peak. The Board should ensure they follow through on this effort.
The presentation also says that Metro will establish data monitoring and reporting procedures. Metro should make a part of this that they report this information to the public. In previous public information requests, I have found that this information is difficult to obtain.
Metro is doing the right thing to set defined criteria for frequency and passenger loading. But the frequency should be much higher than in the proposal. A train should leave from each terminal at least every 6 minutes during peak, and every 15 minutes during off-peak, since this is the budgeted service we have now. Metro should measure passengers per car during all time periods, not just during peak, and should establish a lower threshold loading during off-peak than during peak.
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