Greater Greater Washington


Metro pollutes alerts with ads

Yesterday afternoon, subscribers to WMATA's MetroAlerts across the region got an alert advising them of dire service impacts that could affect their commute: a discount on tickets to a basketball tournament.

Image from WMATA.

As you can imagine, many found the spam message irritating, and Twitter lit up with snarky responses. MetroAlerts is, of course, a tool meant to alert riders to disruptions in service. These alerts can be valuable in helping riders choose an alternate route or leave earlier or later to avoid delays. What riders don't expect are spam emails, which have absolutely nothing to do with alerting customers to potential problems, and are a waste of time for Metro's customers.

One of the reasons yesterday's "alerts" message generated some angst on Twitter among riders is probably that many riders, especially on the Red Line, faced some delays during the morning rush. Many riders complained that alerts were slow to come out. And then a few hours later, WMATA sent them an "alert" they didn't need.

No one who visits the MetroAlerts website would expect these spam emails. According to the webpage, MetroAlerts sends out the following information:

  • Major Metrorail and Metrobus delays and service disruptions
  • Metrobus schedule changes and detours
  • Metrorail advisories specific to your line or frequently used stations
  • Other changes or enhancements to Metro service and facilities
Advertisements aren't part of the package.

Why spam riders?

It's not entirely clear what Metro thinks riders get out of this spam. Clearly some MetroAlerts subscribers are basketball fans. Maybe they'll appreciate the discounted tickets to the BB&T Classic. But most riders don't care about the Classic in the least.

These alerts aren't targeted toward anyone, like basketball fans, for example. It's just mass advertising sent out to a large group in the hope that someone will find it helpful.

It doesn't appear Metro gets anything out of it, either. I asked spokesperson Dan Stessel whether the organizations promoted in the alert compensate Metro for the use of their email lists and alert system. He says Metro doesn't get paid for these. According to Stessel, "these are in-kind promotions for the benefit of riders; generally barter only."

Perhaps what Metro ends up getting out of this is some additional ridership. Some of those riders that got the alert that do like basketball might buy tickets (at a discount!) and then take Metro to the event.

But using untargeted alerts like this seems like a very crude way to promote ridership or create value for riders.

After all, what percentage of MetroAlerts subscribers are basketball fans? Even if it's a high number, like 25%, what percentage will actually buy tickets to this event? For the rest of the subscribers, this is an irritant. And it's more likely to make them unsubscribe from MetroAlerts.

Opting out

I also asked Stessel what discussions Metro staff had about the appropriateness of using the alerts system for promoting unrelated events. He didn't answer directly, but he did point out that people have to opt in to receive the promotions.

It's fairly easy to opt out. Riders just need to log into their account and uncheck the box labeled "promotions." But it's not a matter of opting in. The "promotions" box is checked by default (along with the "alerts" and "advisories" boxes).

Anyone who registered for MetroAlerts before the addition of "advisories" and bus alerts would have registered before Metro added "promotions." Stessel said that subscribers were notified by email of the change at the time.

Alerts are for alerting, not advertising

In the world today, we have many different forms of communication for emergency alerts. Most state departments of transportation have electronic signs, especially in urban areas. They're frequently used to broadcast messages about travel times, traffic accidents, construction, and Amber Alerts. But they're not used to advertise discounted basketball tickets.

Spamming riders with promotions unrelated to Metro service reduces the value of MetroAlerts and it wastes riders' time. It also creates the perception that Metro is out of touch with what riders want. After all, if people liked spam, email services wouldn't have created spam filters.

In the future, transit riders need timely alerts that actually help riders during disruptions so they can have a smooth commute, rather than junk mail.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 


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I guess I wasn't the only one who was annoyed by that...

by BTA on Nov 26, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

If they want to spam alerts customers, it might save them some hassle if they used an email address other than the one used for alerts. I seriously think if this came from "WMATA" or "Metro" or whatever people would not have as much problem with it.

by MLD on Nov 26, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

I am not now and never have been signed up for MetroAlerts but I still got the spam email.

by MP on Nov 26, 2013 12:45 pm • linkreport

"Stessel said that subscribers were notified by email of the change at the time."

Maybe it's just me, but I couldn't find any email notification from WMATA regarding this change. I must have signed up for MetroAlerts before "Promotions" was an option to un-check, because believe me, I would have.

by MetMet on Nov 26, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

I am not now and never have been signed up for MetroAlerts but I still got the spam email.

Same here. I do not recall ever signing up for the service, nor have I ever recieved a Metro Alert email previously - but I still got this bit of spam.

by Alex B. on Nov 26, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

@MP, @Alex B.: Maybe it didn't just go to people signed up for Metro Alerts, but everyone with online SmarTrip accounts?

by MetMet on Nov 26, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

Well, this is what you get when many people keep hammering WMATA for not operating like a business.

by Jasper on Nov 26, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

SmarTrip cards?

by BTA on Nov 26, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

It's gotta be the SmarTrip accounts, because I've never signed up for MetroAlerts either (I just went to the site to try to log in and it does not recognize my email address or cellphone number).

Frustrating as hell, and the proper answer would have been an apology, not blaming the end users. When you're involved in public relations/communications, and you anger your customers, you eat crow, rightly or wrongly, in order to try to win back some credibility. No room to vacillate here.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 26, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

Not having an unsubscribe link is a direct violation of CAN-SPAM. Guess I'll be filing a formal report since Stessel doesn't believe it's a bad thing to flout the law.

by Riz on Nov 26, 2013 12:57 pm • linkreport

MetMet, I think you're right. I and a friend of mine have never signed up for Metro Alerts because, let's be honest, updates that riders post on Twitter are a lot faster and provide better info, but we both still got this spam. I'd like to know how to opt out of that. Normally I like to give Metro plenty of slack and recognize what they do but this was beyond idiotic. Especially since they apparently did not get paid for it (not that that would have justified this spam).

by Ryan S on Nov 26, 2013 1:01 pm • linkreport

That's a huge list of people to spam for free. How do I get Metro to spam everyone for my events? What are the criteria?

by turtleshell on Nov 26, 2013 1:08 pm • linkreport

I logged in last time this happened and went to un-check the "promotions" box. Sure enough, I still got this spam. I went back and looked...and the "promotions" box is not checked.

So how am I supposed to opt out of this, exactly?

by Gray on Nov 26, 2013 1:10 pm • linkreport

Not sure it's the SmarTrip card. I signed up for Metro Alerts via my work e-mail, which is where I get these messages from. My SmarTrip is tied to my personal email, and I do not get these messages from there.....maybe Metro culled both lists for addresses? If so, then I should still get them at my personal email....Metro owes us answers.

by JDC Esq on Nov 26, 2013 1:20 pm • linkreport

I never signed up for Metro Alerts and this is precisely the reason why. Must have gone out to all persons with a registered SmartTrip.

I forwarded it to Mr. Sarles at Thought perhaps he might want a nice discount on some tickets too.

by NMRDC on Nov 26, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

I also have an online SmartTrip account but am not a MetroAlerts subscriber. The only other messages I have received from that account are one for the 2013 inaguration, and another ad from the summer, for deals at Madame Tussauds.

Pretty amazing that this is what they choose to send to the broadest possible number of readers.

Personally, it wouldn't bother me if they attached the ads at the bottom of a post with actual useful information (or, say, "alerts") about Metro service status, but as it is, this was obnoxious.

by Jacques on Nov 26, 2013 1:39 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by 20011 on Nov 26, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

Forwarded this to the FTC for the fairly obvious CAN-SPAM violations:

by DB on Nov 26, 2013 1:59 pm • linkreport

I was NOT alerted that there would be a promotion option checkbox added to the Metro alerts system. That is rubbish.

by OldTime Rider on Nov 26, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

I received the email, and it went straight to my spam. Must be associated with my SmarTrip account, which I manage through my work email. I didn't receive it in my personal email where I get the alerts.

Very concerning that there's no opt out feature for communications from my SmarTrip account.

by Kat on Nov 26, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

Not sure why people are whining about CAN-SPAM violations; I'm pretty sure this falls under the "pre-existing relationship" exemption since you signed up for something from WMATA and they are the ones sending you the email.

by MLD on Nov 26, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

@MLD—I'm whining because I opted out and am still receiving this tripe.

by Tom on Nov 26, 2013 2:49 pm • linkreport

Under CAN-SPAM you must provide a mechanism to unsubscribe. No such link was included in the promo email that WMATA sent.

by Riz on Nov 26, 2013 2:51 pm • linkreport

I'm not even signed up for Metro Alerts (though I used to be, a long time ago) and I got this spam. That means that when I unsubscribed from the alerts, WMATA kept my email on file anyways, then pulled it out for this sales pitch.

by Hal on Nov 26, 2013 2:59 pm • linkreport

Also e-mail so he hears about the latest offers

by Bongo on Nov 26, 2013 3:13 pm • linkreport

Every time I object to advertising in Metro and on buses because it is an undignified use for civic infrastructure, I am shouted down and told that my concern for symbolism and meaning in the public realm is less important than finding revenue streams for transit. Why is this any different? To me it seems much less intrusive and obnoxious than those terrible buses covered with billboards.

by Ron Eichner on Nov 26, 2013 6:04 pm • linkreport

Like others on here, I have never once been a subscriber to any Metro alerts. Not even the "important" ones. I've used my email address to register my SmarTrip card, that is all.

When you send your emails to and, make sure you give it an informative subject. I used "Metrobus accident". If they get the Fwd, they'll just delete it.

by SB on Nov 26, 2013 7:36 pm • linkreport

I work in an IT shop for a large enterprise. I can assure you that the first use of an alert system for something other than the dissemination of important information completely invalidates the system.

The moment you use an alert system for advertising anything other than critical information causes the target audience to mark all communications from that source as junk.

by wr on Nov 26, 2013 9:30 pm • linkreport

I am signed up for the alerts but not through SmarTrip at all and did NOT receive this email at all. This falls in line with several other respondents here are only registered through SmarTrip who did get the email and are NOT signed up for the alerts.

While I can agree that this is hardly the sort of thing I would want as an email subscriber, I think that Matt needs to overhaul this article as it seems to be continuing to insist a connection exists that does not, and putting peoples' underthings in an not all that necessary wad.

by A. P. on Nov 27, 2013 8:34 am • linkreport

The email came from "metroalerts". That's the "person" in the "from" box on the email.

When I contacted Metro in regard to this, their spokesperson said that these messages to MetroAlerts were specifically sanctioned by Metro, and that riders could opt in or out by checking or unchecking a box on the MetroAlerts page.

So the email said it came from MetroAlerts.
Metro also said it came from MetroAlerts.

Even if the email addresses actually came from the email list that Santa Claus keeps of naughty commuters, the email itself did come from Metro and it was branded as MetroAlerts, and therefore it diminishes the utility of the MetroAlerts brand.

In reality, the Venn diagram of people who are subscribed to MetroAlerts and who have registered their SmarTrip card has a lot of overlap, so your technical objection (which is unconfirmed at any rate) really makes no difference.

People got an alert from "MetroAlerts" that was not an alert about transit service disruptions. Therefore, they're upset at Metro for misusing "MetroAlerts". And even if Metro didn't get the email addresses from the MetroAlerts list, they still sent it as a MetroAlert, which still diminishes the utility and brand of the service.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 27, 2013 9:32 am • linkreport

Because someone else tried this, I figured I would check as well.

I went to the MetroAlerts website to try and sign in to check my preferences. Because I didn't recall every signing up, I don't know my password. I entered the email address at which I received the spam message and MetroAlerts says that the email does not exist in their system. How could I be on that mailing list if I'm not a MetroAlerts users?

There is more to this than Metro is telling us.

by SB on Nov 27, 2013 9:40 am • linkreport

Related tangentially to government-owned transit systems that provoke people by doing annoying, even subpar things, I found this story about a private-sector alternative in San Francisco interesting:

Of course, it's still more interesting that the emergence of an alternative that offers better, cleaner, on-demand service for a price should grate on the egalitarian nerves of liberals. But I would say that's a feature, not a bug.

by I Also 95 on Nov 27, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

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