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


What should be in Metro's customer pledge?

What should riders expect from Metro? And what can Metro actually deliver? For the past several months, the Metro Riders' Advisory Council has been working on a customer pledge that can set high expectations for WMATA while acknowledging its operational limitations.

Photo by nj dodge on Flickr.

Most transit agencies do not have customer pledges, but the ones that exist are often vague, lack concrete benchmarks, or talk about goals rather than promises. The RAC wants a pledge that is easy to understand and meaningful to Metro riders, but one that Metro can actually deliver on. We want something better.

As the RAC has quickly discovered, creating something better is not an easy task. Metro's broad range of transit services, amazingly diverse clientele, and tight operational margins make the creation of a meaningful pledge a complicated proposition. It will be impossible to satisfy everyone.

With this in mind, the RAC is attempting to focus on the most important things that Metro riders need and want. After that comes the much harder task of attaching concrete metrics that riders will accept and Metro can adhere to. Finally, the RAC is also trying to create a pledge that is easily digestible and understandable to non-wonks.

Several common themes are emerging, and a consensus seems to be forming around use of these themes in the draft pledge. Here they are, in no particular order:

Safety. Safety has to be everyone's number one priority. A well-maintained system is the basic threshold for any mode of transit. Metro's historical track record here is not inspiring, and an ongoing string of breakdowns and derailments isn't helping to restore anyone's confidence.

A customer pledge can only go so far in bridging that credibility gap, but it can be a first step. The problem is attaching a metric. The only real acceptable metric, of course, is no accidents or incidents. Pledging that Metro will be 99% accident free is not reassuring at all. Perhaps this is why Metro's own scorecard measures injury rates rather than trying to quantify equipment safety standards.

Frequency and Reliability. Riders depend on Metro to offer service that is convenient and dependable, but is there a system-wide standard that customers will accept and that Metro can actually deliver? Frequency of service varies widely, from two-minute breaks between rush hour trains to hour-long gaps between airport-bound buses.

A one size fits all solution seems impossible. An additional complicating factor comes with track work and other scheduled delays. This point needs to be as concrete as possible, but formulating a realistic standard that everyone can understand is difficult.

Incident Management. When things fall apart (as they inevitably do), riders need Metro to provide timely and useful information, even when that information is incomplete or preliminary. Despite the many avenues for informing its customers about what's going on, Metro fails to consistently deliver.

Metro has the capability to release information almost instantaneously to a broad spectrum of riders. It's just a matter of calculating the minimum amount of time between the outbreak of a problem and when customers expect to be told what's going on. My personal break point is two minutes, with updates every five minutes afterward, but some people are more patient than others.

Security. Despite the fact that crime rates on Metro are often lower than those in the communities it serves, riders have heightened expectations of what Metro can and should do to keep them safe. Metro can realistically pledge to be vigilant and responsive to crime, but it cannot pledge to eliminate crime or even keep it at a certain level. The most realistic pledge may be for Metro to respond quickly and deal with victims courteously and respectfully.

Customer Service. Riders want to be heard, and even more they want Metro to respond and act. Metro's current "customer comment rate" metric is an inadequate standard, as it excludes social media and interactions with Metro employees in the field. Even more, it fails to track response times and satisfaction with those responses.

A pledge item here should focus on responding quickly, effectively, and with courtesy. "We got your message" isn't enough. Customers need something more concrete than that. Squaring responses to official inquiries versus tweets or other indirect ways of communication may be hard to compress into a single standard, but it can be done.

We have also looked at other themes, like transparency, stewardship of public resources, and use of data. However, many of these have less to do with the direct rider experience and more with how Metro is run. While these are important public interests, they do not directly relate to the rider experience and therefore have made the RAC's shortlist so far. The RAC's focus is on what riders expect when they get on a bus, train, or MetroAccess vehicle.

Knowing the limitations of what Metro can deliver and the high expectations of riders, how would you formulate a customer pledge on these themes?

Ben Ball is the Chair of the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council, where he represents the District of Columbia. He is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Department of Homeland Security, where he works on immigration policy issues. All views posted here are his own and not the opinions of his employer. A recovering Foreign Service Officer, Ben has lived in Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia and now lives in LeDroit Park. 


Add a comment »

Frequency and Reliability metric: I think if there's a schedule created then there can be a 100% adherence metric. For rush hour: 2 min headways and 8 car trains, then it ALWAYS has to be like that (barring extreme emergencies). On weekends: 15-20 min spacing, 6 car trains (or whatever it is) but then you have to stick to it! It's fine if there are separate schedules/metric for buses and trains, just state what they are and aim for 100% adherence. That metric would be easy to measure i.e "95% of rushhour trains were on schedule, 80% of weekend busses maintainted headways etc". It would be easier to pin point issues as well.
Metro system is worth nothing to the customer if it's not reliable.

by lenzai on Sep 4, 2013 11:04 am • linkreport

What should be in Metro's customer pledge?

Safe, reliable, affordable, convenient, regular and frequent transportation across the service area. The goal should be to be more beat driving.

by Jasper on Sep 4, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

The goal should be to be more beat driving.

by Jasper on Sep 4, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

to be beat driving? Glad you cleared that up for us, Jasper. :-)

by Gray on Sep 4, 2013 11:14 am • linkreport

Why should safety be the highest priority? Even at its present level, Metro is far safer than driving on basically any metric. We should hold Metro to the same standard that we do driving or biking, and not be overly concerned with safety at the expense of a reliable and efficient ride. For example, the decision to eliminate ATC has had serious repercussions in terms of jerky trains, inconvenient positioning on platforms, and other operational issues, and these deserve more weight.

by Dan Miller on Sep 4, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

Just FYI, the RAC will be debating and voting on a pledge at tonight's meeting. We meet at Metro HQ at 6:30.

I'd be interested in seeing actual pledge language. How would you phrase it?

by Ben on Sep 4, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

We are going to strive to automate the whole system so that it can run frequently all the time except during exceptional maintenance windows.

by NikolasM on Sep 4, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

@ Dan Miller:Why should safety be the highest priority?

Ever been in a bus with a crappy driver?

by Jasper on Sep 4, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

"Knowing the limitations of what Metro can deliver and the high expectations of riders..."

This is what needs to corrected in the pledge-the expectations that even with significant limitations it should be fantastic. Good service, safety, and reliability cost money, which WMATA doesn't have much of. It's time to ratchet back the public's perception of what Metro should be (NYC subway on its best day) with what it is (a metro area solution with funding challenges) and I think the solution is in public relations. What we have currently is really not that bad.

For instance, when I worked at the Pentagon, the bus was right out front, but a parking spot would have been half a mile away. Very few people knew about my bus route, which connected the Pentagon to Ballston, and was superior to even Metro when you consider switching trains. My commute was shorter than by car and train, and the bus was spotless and there was always a seat. These are the types of benefits that exist today that more people need to know about. Was there an occasional delay because of traffic? Of course-but anyone that can't give concessions to Metro because of things outside of its control are delusional about how transit works.

by JV on Sep 4, 2013 12:16 pm • linkreport

How about no lying to riders about stuff that is going on or delays. There was one time during a delay over the intercom it was said trains would be coming soon still there 15 minutes later wondering what happen to soon. I could have taken a bus, caught or cab or even been 3/4 of the way there by walking.

The ability to get a refund if a delay on the trains make you miss a bus so that you could find another way to get from a to b without being stuck for a useless fare.

Actually time rail arrivals and bus departures at stations so that buses wont leave 2 minutes before a trains gets there or when the train pulls in especially when there are 20-30 minute headways on the train.

by kk on Sep 4, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

Its hard to get them to fix things when they are lying to riders and to themselves. Honesty and transparency would be a great start.

by SJE on Sep 4, 2013 1:11 pm • linkreport

Personally it takes about twice as long for me to take the Metro to work as to drive, but I still take Metro to work because it enables me to live without a car. Does that make Metro "worse or better than driving"? I don't know. I'm not sure why we should set arbitrary standards like "it should be better than driving".

If the system is safe, reliable, on-time, frequent and secure, then people will gravitate to it, even if there are different options.

Unfortunately Metro cannot even hold itself to its own internal standards, much less a public pledge.

by Scoot on Sep 4, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

I would like a basic pledge for rail frequency that a passenger should never have to wait more than 8-10 minutes for a train. I have often seen 20 minutes headways on the Green Line beyond Fort Totten on weeknights and this is unacceptable.

I was recently in Chicago and had to catch an early morning train to the airport. The trains were 12-15 minutes apart at 4 am and yet we in Washington can't seem to manage that frequency at 10 pm! Rush hour service is pretty good, but WMATA needs to realize that off-peak riders are legitimate riders, too.

Furthermore, when WMATA does something that deliberately inconveniences riders, e.g. bus substitution for closed track segments, the agency should compensate riders with improved service elsewhere. This can take the form of increased train frequencies to compensate for the time lost riding the bus bridge around the track work. Compensating customers for inconvenience is very common in private sector businesses that actually try to lure and retain customers. WMATA should do the same.

As for safety, riding the bus or the train is one of the safest forms of transportation, so I don't know what specific policy issues needs to be addressed there.

by Eric F on Sep 4, 2013 2:18 pm • linkreport

@Eric F--hear, hear!

by Dan Miller on Sep 4, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

@Eric - Good suggestions. What sort of language would you use for an actual pledge?

Frequency/headways are definitely part of what we'd like to put forward, but it's hard to craft standards that a) WMATA can live up to, b) riders will accept as credible, and c) are comprehensible without a slide rule. The current thinking is that there should be a peak and off-peak standard, but that it shouldn't get more complicated than that.

The compensation issue is harder. I sympathize with that and wish it was a possibility, but I don't think WMATA is either willing or frankly able to go there.

You assume that WMATA is looking to retain and attract customers. It isn't - the rail system is over capacity and there's no money to buy new buses.

by Ben on Sep 4, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport


There is currently not enough funding to run more frequent weeknight service. Reducing headways from 20 minutes to 12 minutes in both directions is pretty significant. It would require raising fares or requesting more money, but probably both.

And I'm not even sure if there is a lot of demand for increasing the frequency of off-peak service. Especially in an era where off-peak service is down 5% due to fare increases and other factors.

by Scoot on Sep 4, 2013 3:42 pm • linkreport

If Metro had monthly passes that made sense for a large portion of riders, there wouldn't be whining about refunds for service issues.

by MLD on Sep 4, 2013 4:04 pm • linkreport


Unfortunately Metro cannot even hold itself to its own internal standards, much less a public pledge.

I'm glad someone said it. Good grief, what's next? Change their mission statement?

by oboe on Sep 4, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

Whatever pledge they end up with, I'm sure it'll be a variation on "To completely leverage existing competitive meta-services whilst continuing to authoritatively simplify enterprise-scale and timely services."

by oboe on Sep 4, 2013 4:13 pm • linkreport

Who needs a mission statement, customer pledge, or any other organizational philosophy or promises when you have a monopoly like Metro has?

by mekak8 on Sep 5, 2013 11:27 am • linkreport

Just pledge to have some common sense. If two escalators out of three are broken, have the operating one going DOWN instead of up. Yes, TWICE yesterday, at Dupont and Metro Center.

by daveb59 on Sep 5, 2013 11:51 am • linkreport

actually, daveb59, I think if there is only one escalator in service it should be going up. It is harder for most people to climb up than down.

by sbc on Sep 5, 2013 11:10 pm • linkreport

SOmething like the following: 1) Don't taz me, bro. No more than five taser incidents with passengers per month. 2) Don't kill me, bro. No more than two passenger fatalities per month on average over three years (suicides or possible suicides would be excluded). 3) No more reliablity problems, bro. Measured as no more than four weekends per month with limited or disrupted service. If there are two lines interrupted due to maintenance on any single weekend, that will be counted as only one against the goal.

by Tom M on Sep 6, 2013 11:28 am • linkreport

2) Don't kill me, bro. No more than two passenger fatalities per month on average over three years (suicides or possible suicides would be excluded)

Do people really think Metro kills even remotely this many people?

Stats that fit your definition from the past few years (total and rail):
2013: 1 (0 rail)
2012: 4 (2 rail)
2011: 2 (0 rail)
2010: 2 (2 rail)
2009: 11 (9 rail)
2008: 4 (2 rail)

An average of 24 fatalities per year over 3 years would be horrific.

by MLD on Sep 6, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

How about unlimited passes that aren't $200+? Metro must be the world's only transit system without some sort of point-to-point unlimited option.

by Phil on Sep 8, 2013 8:39 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us