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Why do Washingtonians hate on Metro?

Rob Pitingolo is an urbanist blogger from Cleveland who recently moved to Arlington, and has been contributing to GGW. Yesterday, he curiously noted that so many Washingtonians complain so loudly about the Metro, despite it being one of the best transit systems in America by any objective measure.

Pitingolo posed the question, What's the root of DC's hatred for Metro?


Photo by Toastwife on Flickr.

He went on to reason the answer is that:

So many people use (transit) here that there are a whole lot more opportunities to hear from people that don't like it. In Cleveland, the same types of professionals who get frustrated with 'hot cars' and delayed trains and rude station managers (in Washington) simply aren't using public transit.
He makes a good point, that transit is an integrated part Washington's culture in a way that it is not in other cities, but that's only half the answer. The other half is that Metro just isn't as good as it used to be, simply because it's aging, and many of us remember when it was new and perfect.

Metro is only about a generation old. It was planned and built since most of its riders have been alive, and for its first couple of decades, nothing went wrong. The maintenance and safety problems that have plagued Metro this decade are for the most part new events, consequences of an aging system that we simply didn't have to deal with until recently.

Like Pitingolo, I came to the Washington region from Ohio. I was 8 years old in 1989 when my family moved from suburban Columbus to Gaithersburg. But the Metro I was first introduced to was brand new, without a stopped escalator or single-track segment to be found. Shady Grove had just opened five years earlier. At the time, with precious few other rapid transit systems having been built since before World War II, Washingtonians liked to claim that Metro was the best subway in the world.

Really. People said that. Best in the world.

Things have, inevitably, changed. Escalators get old. Tracks crack. Repairs have to be made. Older infrastructure requires maintenance that is often inconvenient to riders. These are facts of life, dealt with by every infrastructure agency in the world, but they are facts that Washingtonians didn't have to think about until recently.

We remember the good ol' days, and so these days of problems sting especially sharp.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

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Excellent post Dan M! The biggest problem is that lots of people like me (I'm 37), who have lived in the DMV Metro area for the past 10-20 years, we remember when the system actually worked excellently, was clean, well managed and not so crowded.

In some ways, it's true that the quality of service has gone down in some part due to natural ageing of the system, but still, I am baffled why MORE was not done before to prepare for what is inevitable?

I mean, it doesn't take a genius to understand that a system will age with time and that to ensure long term health, strong leadership and forsight is required.

And there is, I think, where Metro has failed to deliver. For years (at least the last 10 from what I can see), it's been in "react" mode versus "plan ahead" mode.

Things only seem to be addressed when they are at their breaking point, rather than ahead of time.

That's the main reason I am angry at Metro, and I suspect many others feel the same.

by Stefan Sittig on Aug 10, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

I dunno. I think you're making too much of it.

People are complaining because metro has a lot to complain about.

For instance the ridiculous overcrowding during rush hour. It's really not fun to have to let a train (or two, or three or four) go before you can get on board. Especially not when you find out that the only reason why you could get on that car is because the air conditioning is broken.

While sweating to dehydration in the train, you realize that you will miss your twice an hour bus, and will have to wait even longer out at the faceless bus platform in the sweltering heat, without a sip to drink since WMATA and food and drink are for some reason incompatible.

When finally the bus arrives, you get in and at first are pleasantly surprised by the air conditioning, until you see the driver with four sweaters on and realize that you will be freezing soon as well.

Finally, as you try to get some heat from the overheating air conditioning unit in the back of the bus, you realize that the bus driver likes to pumps the breaks and gas turning you into a milkshake of sweat and chills by the time you get home.

by Jasper on Aug 10, 2010 3:45 pm • linkreport

I wonder if the high concentration of policy wonks / highly educated professionals might have something to do with. It seems like most people (and certainly most who post to blogs like this one) have an opinion about everything and naturally wonder about how things could be better. I'm guessing this is less part of the landscape in a place like Cleveland or St Louis, etc.

Personally, I find the constant complaints about Metro to be a bit overblown. I've been commuting daily on the Orange line between Arlington and downtown for over a year now and can only remember being kicked off a broken down train twice. Maybe three times. But in general, day after day, the train gets me where I want to go. Yes, I rarely have a seat. Yes, far too often the cars are overly warm.

I think there is definitely something to be said for the psychological effect where people remember things that are out of pattern far longer and more vividly than they remember things that are boringly in pattern and then assume that the out of pattern things happen more frequently than they do because of the distorted memory.

by Josh S on Aug 10, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport

Some of them are pretty new to the area though. I remember being taken aback when the "Unsuck DC Metro" blogger had no idea why an old sign said "Mt Vernon Square-UDC" on it, because they weren't around here when that was still the station name just a few years ago. By any reasonable standard, the Unsuck blogger is still a tourist rather than a local, with that short an amount of time here.

by neff on Aug 10, 2010 4:04 pm • linkreport

I was reading Robert' Caro's book about Robert Moses last night describing the filthy decrepitude of the New York subway and the LIRR during the sixties, I think it could be much, much worse than it is.
That said, I've ridden metro daily from February 2007 and I have yet to see the huge decline in service that people are complaining about.

by Steve S on Aug 10, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

I think in addition to what's been pointed out is that the level of customer service most often provided is extraordinarily poor. There's a huge disconnect between Metro and its riding public, to the point that the relationship seems adversarial. Although Metro will say over and over that safety is their number one priority, bringing individual issues to their attention is an exercise in patience - with the labyrinth they've constructed for reporting on line and the amount of time they take to "investigate" an issue) - and futility - a form-letter response after a month-long "investigation. So many operators (most of my experience is with bus drivers and station managers) seem to have an obvious disdain for the public and their jobs that posting pictures of them sleeping, texting while driving, reading while driving, etc., is commonplace.
For a really good idea of how WMATA feels about the riding public, just search for Jackie Lynn Jeter, President
Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 689, on unsuckdcmetro.

by mazzie on Aug 10, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

Here's a dirty little secret: public transportation sucks.

It is much nicer to be sitting, even in traffic, in a late model car with AC going, the music you want on a radio, nobody sitting in the seat next to you with b.o. and or peaking over your shoulder, and you can pull up to a garage spot and not deal with walking 1/2 a mile in the heat to get home from the station.

There's a lot of good reason to take public transit. Comfort isn't one of them.

The real question isn't why people are whining about that. It is how do we balance the need to make metro better agains the need to keep it affordable. Having middle class train riders builds an important group to keep investments in public transport going. But let's not pretend that Metrorail is an ideal system.

I dont get this Pitingolo love. So far he has not asked one interesting question. The real question here is why do people who bitch about metrorail when 1/2 of them don't pay for it -- and the truly negative experiences is rising the bus, not the train.

by charlie on Aug 10, 2010 4:15 pm • linkreport

And really what bugs me the most is not the fare, but the level of service I get for the fare.

For $2.25, in Chicago, a similarly-sized system in terms of capacity, trains came regularly, they were rarely full to capacity (leave alone crunch capacity), air-conditioning and heating worked, trains ran smoothly, what escalators and elevators they had worked, and the operators were polite. Oh and the train doors? They worked. No ifs, no buts, they worked. And it's obvious where the money is going: there is near constant repair and maintenance, leading to quieter trains, faster trains, trains more often.

For $4.15 or whatever the hell I'm paying these days, I may or may not get a train every five minutes at rush hour, leading to unbelievable crunches, air conditioning may or may not work, trains lurch and jerk and shudder and fall apart, and not once have I met a WMATA employee that was not a complete and utter douchebag. And every time we raise fares, I get the sense the service has become worse: more escalators out of service, fewer trains, worse rides.

So sure, if you're provincial and you've never had a massive transit system to compare Metro RFail to, then yeah, it's a great system. If you've ever used any other system in your life, this Metro is an overpriced piece of crap.

by varun on Aug 10, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

Charlie, it seems to be a matter of taste. For me going around in a car means a palm-sweating nightmare of being stuck in traffic (if not moving) or feeling like I'm seconds away from death at the hands of someone not paying enough attention (if moving), while being on the train -- where deadly accidents are vanishingly rare, and delays are an annoying occasional occurrence rather than something happening over and over every few minutes of every commute -- means I can relax and not have to stress out while I'm getting there or stress out about where to park once I get there.

In discussions like this it's really best not to pretend our tastes are universal.

by neff on Aug 10, 2010 4:29 pm • linkreport

Dan, I think the bigger question for a lot of us is, "Why do some people think that complaining about Metro is close to blasphemy?"

Yeah, Metro is one of the best transit systems in America. But guess what: It still sucks. That's because American mass transit sucks. And knowing that it sucked less 10 or 15 years ago has nothing to do with the fact that it really sucks now.

I mean, should I take comfort in sitting in those awkward Metro seats from knowing that my parents were in awe of the 1000-series trains? Or should I feel upset that I am paying $10 roundtrip to go from A to B and it will still take me forever to get there?

(By the way, to the commenter who wrote that the Unsuck writer is still "pretty much a tourist": No, he's not. Once you've moved to an urban area and expect to be there for several years--essentially, once you start paying taxes--you're a citizen just like any other. And the fact that the signs hadn't been changed years later is another sign that WMATA's problems aren't just fiscal.)

by PM on Aug 10, 2010 4:41 pm • linkreport

Neff--

"In discussions like this it's really best not to pretend our tastes are universal."

Right, but as an empirical observation, I think it's pretty clear that most people, most of the time, prefer individual transit.

There is a reason why it is newsworthy that Mike Bloomberg "take the train" to work: because most people that rich--or, actually, much, much less rich--skip the transit and take a car.

by PM on Aug 10, 2010 4:43 pm • linkreport

I respectfully ask that before jumping to conclusions about my opinion on Metro, please click through to the original post where you will find my conclusion:

While DC is a 'relatively transit rich region', that doesn't mean the service is objectively amazing. For all the time we spend comparing which transit system in America is better than the others, it misses the bigger picture. Every single city in America could use better public transit service. Every one. Even 'America's best' cities for transit could use some serious help. There is still a long way to go before they become truly great.

by Rob Pitingolo on Aug 10, 2010 4:56 pm • linkreport

@ neff; I'm not saying EVERYONE would prefer driving, I'm saying a large majority would prefer driving. The question isn't "why are we picking on metro when it is much better than RTA". The question is can we improve it to a degree to retain, or capture, more middle class riders.

The preferred solution by some liberals who took too few economics classes is to make the alternative more expensive (tax gas, road congestion, raise parking). I'm always asking how can we improve transit, while a the same time recognizing that money is a lot tighter than a lot of GGW readers recognize.

by charlie on Aug 10, 2010 4:58 pm • linkreport

Right, but as an empirical observation, I think it's pretty clear that most people, most of the time, prefer individual transit.

This is exactly right. Which is why PM's comments are so spot on. American mass transit sucks because Americans don't like it and don't believe in it. And the less they believe in it, the less likely they are to support the tough decisions needed to make it work. Which means they believe in it less, and so on.

Without a radical shift in the way the majority of Americans (and Washingtonians) look at transportation as a whole, Metro is doomed.

I take solace in knowing that my 17 year old brother who lives in the DC suburbs barely drives and only does so to get to the Grosvenor station. He hates cars, traffic, and sprawl, as do his friends. Perhaps American kids will be the impetus for a real appreciation for TOD, mass transit, and the like in this country. Maybe it's the fact that they are exposed to more of the world, maybe not. Our generation, unfortunately, is reaping what it sows.

Thanks, Dan, for this excellent piece.

by JTS on Aug 10, 2010 5:09 pm • linkreport

@ Charlie: The idea is not to make other means on transportation more expensive arbitrarily, but to enact policy so that their actual cost is closer to their true cost. The true cost factors in externalities such as pollution, congestion, accidents and fatalities, and others. That only seems fair. Why do you charactize it as a liberal thing?

by k on Aug 10, 2010 5:09 pm • linkreport

>Right, but as an empirical observation, I think it's pretty clear that most people, most of the time, prefer individual transit.

This is only true is places where the built environment makes it easier to drive than to take transit (which yes, is most of America).

Where I live you have to circle for parking for 20 minutes every single time you take a personal car anywhere. It's a miserable experience. At least on transit I only have to wait 20 minutes occasionally, and can read a book while doing so.

I understand your point, and I appreciate it. You're right that riding transit can be obnoxious sometimes (often). But you go to far to say that driving is objectively easier. It is only easier because we've spent most of the last century making it as easy as possible, to the detriment of everything else.

by BeyondDC on Aug 10, 2010 5:14 pm • linkreport

PS: I know the difference between too and to. Typo. ;-)

by BeyondDC on Aug 10, 2010 5:18 pm • linkreport

For me, it's not the fact that repairs and maintenance are necessary. I'm perfectly willing to put up with a temporary inconvenience so long as it's just that--temporary. But with Metro, every little repair job seems to take 10-times as long as it should.

For instance, if I'm recalling a recent Dr. Gridlock posting correctly, when an escalator goes out of repair, it will be inactive for _months_. You're telling me whenever an escalator breaks down in a private facility--like a shopping mall--it takes _months_ to get it running again? The hell it does. If it takes more than a week even in the case of a catastrophic mechanical failure, I'd be shocked.

It's never been explained to me why Metro has this unique maintenance difficulty. Sure, some of its escalators are much larger than the average escalator, but most of the ones I pass through that are broken are just your everyday-length escalators.

by matt on Aug 10, 2010 5:19 pm • linkreport

The challenge is to transform riders' frustration with Metro into a political force to get DC, MD and VA politicians to commit greater funding to WMATA and find a dedicated source of funding.

by Malcolm Kenton on Aug 10, 2010 5:22 pm • linkreport

@k; the religion of pricing cars at their "true cost" has nothing to do with your politics; it is at the end of day economics. However, the desire to make driving more expensive -- and make transit options look better -- is a very liberal political agenda.

@BDC; again, you miss the point. You may like transit. But right now something like 80% of Americans don't. They view is as public subsdiies to move poor people around. You raise a mildly interesting point -- would people tolerate driving conditions based on cars from the 1950s (no AC, no Power steering, less comfortable seats, 10MPG). No, but we've had 50 years of technological advances there than make it very easy to go around the block. Is that true for transit -- the only 3 I can think of is nextbus, smarttrip and AC (which only seems to work about 50% of the time in my experience).

@JTS; you raise a very interesting point with today's kids. Kids always want something different. They don't have jobs -- and the job is a big reason why you need a car. Facebook and the internet is better than meeting at a friends house for a party. I have to think that will start to change people's minds.

by charlie on Aug 10, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

This is a productive conversation in many ways.

I think the reason why many transit activists are upset about complaints about Metro are exactly the reasons that BDC and others have specified. Such complaints have a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if not harnessed into an actual political movement, they can erode bourgeois support for what is understood in America as a largely "poor" (or "urban") amenity.

Since I happen to be (a) a graduate student, (b) generically in favor of urbanism, and (c) a fan, generally, of trains and light rail, I am very amenable to this diagnosis. Yet I also really dislike Metro. How can anyone not be at least a little bit upset reading the fine reportage here on GGW about the failures of Metro management to build a culture of safety? The refrain that "Metro is safer than driving" rings false when it is clear that Metro is not as safe as it could be even given current resource constraints.

And it's not enough to say that you, personally, find Metro to be more convenient than driving. Yes, circling endlessly for a parking space is terribly inconvenient; but you forget that people who want parking spaces simply don't visit the city, or, if they do, they pay for valets. (When I had a real job in the LA area, I certainly did so.) So this objection doesn't fly, since it's not one that people encounter--and when they do, they blame it not on their mode of transportation but on cities themselves.

by PM on Aug 10, 2010 5:46 pm • linkreport

">Right, but as an empirical observation, I think it's pretty clear that most people, most of the time, prefer individual transit.

This is only true is places where the built environment makes it easier to drive than to take transit (which yes, is most of America)."

BDC: If this is true, why are the Chinese buying cars? And if this is true, why did Americans buy cars in the pre-WWII period? (Or, going back even earlier, why didn't wealthy Londoners in the Regency take the omnibus instead of private coaches?)

Cars are luxury goods in the strict sense.

by PM on Aug 10, 2010 5:48 pm • linkreport

Keep in mind that Metro(rail) is a large system. The issues you encounter may be different than the ones I do. I live near Gallery Place, but stopped using that as a station in the mornings because I got sick of waiting for two or three cars to fill up BEFORE I could get on one. Now I go to Judiciary Square of Metro Center (little bit of a walk when it's so hot & humid out). And I'm still faced with long waits for trains, trains getting constantly de-boarded (one posted commented he'd been kicked off two or three times in the last year. I once got kicked off two times in the same *afternoon*)

Anecdotes aren't data. I don't consider myself your 'normal' rider, but to pretend that people are complaining about nothing is silly, as well.

by J on Aug 10, 2010 5:49 pm • linkreport

>you miss the point. You may like transit. But right now something like 80% of Americans don't.

I get the point, and even agree with it. Driving *is* easier for most Americans. My point is that driving is not easier because of some inherent failing of transit, but rather that it is easier because we have produced cities that are intentionally built to make driving easy.

When we spend our money on building a highway or a parking lot instead of a transit line, that makes driving easier and taking transit more difficult. When we adopt zoning regulations that require a building setback and limit density, that spreads things out, making driving easier and everything else harder.

Yes, driving is easier. But it is easier because we have made it easier, not because of any fundamental characteristic. And since we've made driving so easy and taking transit so difficult, most Americans make the rational decision to drive most of the time.

by BeyondDC on Aug 10, 2010 5:51 pm • linkreport

@PM; small correction; in places like china and india (where car sales are exploding for a variety of reasons) people aren't going from transit to cars; they are going from motorbikes to cars.

Try taking a six hour bus ride across Bombay in a public bus, then do it is a car the other way. Sure, the six hours in traffic is a pain, but again it is better to be an A/C little bubble than the alternative.

The other reason the noise level is up is were are at an decision point. WMATA rail is never going to be an urban subway -- it wasn't designed for that. But as a effective commuter rail, at least on the Orange and Red lines, we are about two inches away from breaking the system.

by charlie on Aug 10, 2010 5:57 pm • linkreport

In Washington it is a sport to prove you are the most cynical, the most above-it-all person in the entire world. "You know what sucks more than anything ever anywhere? WHATEVER IT IS THAT JUST PISSED ME OFF BRIEFLY." Frankly, I don't know that there's any more complaining about Metro than there was when I first moved here 8 years ago, but the people doing the complaining now have actual evidence to back up their bitching.

by TheGreenMiles on Aug 10, 2010 5:58 pm • linkreport

>If this is true, why are the Chinese buying cars? And if this is true, why did Americans buy cars in the pre-WWII period?

Because cars are wonderfully useful tools - as long as everybody isn't required to use one. The mistake we made was rebuilding our cities so completely around cars that instead of being a luxury item that you used for excursions or heavy shopping, they became necessary for every trip we make.

Cars offer diminishing returns. If you're the only person driving one then you reap tremendous benefits, but the more people that are on the road, the worse things are for everybody. By the time everybody is on the road, the system isn't working for anybody.

Yes, circling endlessly for a parking space is terribly inconvenient; but you forget that people who want parking spaces simply don't visit the city

Actually, that's exactly my point. The supposed "ease of driving" enjoyed by the majority of Americans is based on the fact that most Americans spend most of their time in places that are specifically easy to drive in.

by BeyondDC on Aug 10, 2010 6:02 pm • linkreport

No, almost by definition driving is inherently better than transit, because, ceteres paribus, the motorist operates on his own schedule and can consume the most efficient/direct route.

by MPC on Aug 10, 2010 6:17 pm • linkreport

@ Charlie

You haven't been to India since 95 when they changed Bombay to Mumbai ?

When did it ever take 6 hours to cross the city ?

by kk on Aug 10, 2010 6:20 pm • linkreport

There's also another point. Metro is not only aging at this time, it is also reaching ridership level that expose the fundamental flaw in it's design.

Metro was not built like NYC, Boston, or Chicago's "El", as urban subways intended for that purpose. It was built with the objective function of being a suburban luxury liner, hauling folks from the burbs out and in for work. As such, it only runs dual track, which is good enough for in and out runs at capacity. The seating is woefully inefficient...but great if you are sitting there on a long run from the burbs.

Now that the cities are growing, and tech businesses are locating in the burbs, that paradigm is broken. People are using the system as an urban transit method, but one without the ability to run bullet trains or quickly remove down cars, etc. The seating design invites and causes crowding at the doors, causing tie ups at stops and cars that are "full" with a ton of empty space in the center.

@charlie: How can it be economics and a religion and a "liberal political agenda"? BTW - some us liberals took econ, to the graduate level. Even read Adam Smith, and thus can tell how the right pretty much makes it up about him and his ideas.

The reality is that the operation of cars is one of the most highly subsidized forms of transport. The Federal Highway trust gets additional revenues from general taxation to supplement the gas tax. State and local roads are usually paid out of general funds. Actual yuser fees, like the RPP in DC are so low as to be joke compared to maintenance costs.

The University of Minesota did a study and estimated that implicit and explicit subsidies would work out to requiring approximately $2/gal gas tax as a conversion to user fees.

This leaves alone the cost of the majority of our carrier fleets which are (and have been for decades) located where? If you guessed right by the oil in the Persian Gulf, you win the kewpee doll! Add to that the cost of troops normally stationed on land in region (we'll pretend that we would have cared about Iraq sans the oil to avoid that debate) and a back of the envelope I did a while back estimated another $2-4/gal in user fees to maintain the "cheap oil" military garrison.

In other words, the real cost of driving just for explicit and implicit govt expenditures (we leave aside the nebulous environmental costs as debatable) as converted to gas prices runs to somewhere between $8-10/gal at today's prices. That isn't an agenda, that's simple economics. On the "Americans like cars" point, another econ 101 maxim is that is you subsidize a good, you get overuse of a good. Duh.

by John on Aug 10, 2010 6:29 pm • linkreport

MPC: Ceteres paribus indeed, but everything is not equal, because of the aforementioned diminishing returns of private travel. The more people in the system, the less efficient private travel becomes. On the other hand, transit becomes *more* efficient with more people in the system.

The whole point here is that all things are not equal, because what constitutes easy transportation changes based on the collected variables of what's going on around you.

by BeyondDC on Aug 10, 2010 6:36 pm • linkreport

On the other hand, transit becomes *more* efficient with more people in the system.

So it would be good then if 2 million people decided to become new metro riders tomorrow, since more=better?

I know I'm reducing it to the point of absurdity, but you can't argue that transit has increasing returns to scale.

The only thing that happens is that the average cost per person drops because there's effectively no marginal cost on a new rider, but you're totally omitting the fact that overhead goes up for maintenance and capital investment as a result of higher consumption.

So maybe you respond by saying 'just build more capacity', but that's the argument that you usually make against roads (i.e. roads aren't sustainable if you always have to build more capacity) so I don't see how you can argue that the two modes are different w/o being hypocritical.

I'll give you that transit has almost no direct marginal costs, but that's only a small part of the whole picture.

by MPC on Aug 10, 2010 6:56 pm • linkreport

@John

Cool story bro

by MPC on Aug 10, 2010 7:03 pm • linkreport

@John

There was actually a thing in Foreign Policy about the cost of securing oil supplies last week. $7.3 trillion over the last 30 years. Not sure if your numbers on what a gas tax that reflects the cost of gas in totality actually work out, but $7.3 trillion is quite a big number.

by JTS on Aug 10, 2010 7:09 pm • linkreport

@Charlie,
The preferred solution by some liberals
I wonder how many people looked at that part of your comment and immediately tuned you out. It seems to me that throwing political qualifier into a comment - be it "liberal", "conservative", whatever - reduces the comment to little more than name-calling instead of actual dialogue about the underlying ideas, and unnecessarily casts your interlocutors into an amorphous inimical "them" rather than seeing them as rational agents who are also seeking to improve the system.

by Craig on Aug 10, 2010 7:29 pm • linkreport

Many professionals in NYC take the subway and do not complain about it to the degree that they do in Washington, D.C. I have lived in both places. It would be insanely extravagant, and also slow, to take the taxi or to own a car in Manhattan.

Maybe New Yorkers are just more urbane, putting up with a certain degree of grime and inconvenience, such as 90+ degree temperatures in train stations in the summer; these stations are usually trench cuts and not far from the surface; most stations have stairs.

Before the recent station redesigns (cosmetic: new tiles and artwork), the NYC subway system concentrated less on superficial aspects and delivered speed and reliability, except on weekends when traveling by subway tends to produce long waits. As said upthread, the NYC system was designed for both mass and local transit. I have not been in NYC since 2002 and can't say for sure what it's like now.

But it looks as if DC Metro has concentrated too hard on superficial aspects, overselling itself (clean stations, streamlined and uniform design; high-tech fares) so that riders expect more; it has also underperformed on the basics (stuck elevators, slow trips during the commuter weekday rush).

I would trade thousands of blobs of dirty gum (the typical decor of NYC subway station floors) for speed and frequency.

by sara on Aug 10, 2010 8:06 pm • linkreport

I also wonder why Metro takes so long to fix elevators. And those "sorry for any [sic] inconvenience announcements" after delays are really irritating.
I still prefer the Metro to the congested highways with rude drivers we have so suufer through in the DC area.
Since some commentators have already politicized the isslue, note that the Examiner seems to be on a crusade to bash Metro any chance they can. They make an occasional good point about Union abuses, but it appears that they would rather have the system shut down than improved.

by Fred on Aug 10, 2010 8:10 pm • linkreport

I'm a native Clevelander myself. DCers are whiners, that's a big part of the difference. They want things done for them and they'll complain until it's done, even if that time never comes.

by Rich on Aug 10, 2010 8:45 pm • linkreport

I really like Dan's point.. I can understand why native Washingtonians would be wracked with nostalgia over Metro. But looking at his argument in another way, I think one of the reasons Metro gets a bad rap is not just that so many of us grew up in DC, and remember Metro when it was actually new, but rather that so many of us didn't grow up in DC at all, but first experienced Metro as occasional tourists-cum-DC transplants.

I first "experienced" Metro during 7th grade field trips in the late 90s. I came armed with expectations from my science teacher, who for weeks before the trip talked on-and-on about how Metro was one of America's greatest achievements. I laugh about that now, but just a few months ago a family member who was visiting DC for the first time thought it was the best transit system on Earth (she thought the NYC subway was disgusting but practical- but she knew that would be the case before she went).

Metro does a poor job at managing expectations. Even the current, arguably run-down, system, when experienced for the first time by a tourist or newcomer, has the same shock-and-awe quality it had when Dan experienced it as a kid. But the romance has to wear out eventually. That said, having lived here a year, I still love Metro!

by Steven on Aug 10, 2010 9:06 pm • linkreport

I used to brag about Metro for decades, until last summer when trains were packed, irregularly spaced, and had too long of wait times. Throw in the accidents and station closure's & thus, I'm not as big a fan as I used to be.

by Matt on Aug 10, 2010 9:55 pm • linkreport

I just went to NY to see my family, and within 20 minutes one family guest got in my face and wagged his finger at me about Metro's shortcomings. Within minutes after that another guest said to me, basically, "I have no idea what everybody's whining about. If they want to see a system that's lousy, they should go to London or NY. We have a place in DC and love Metro and these complainers should just shut up."

Not defending a position, contesting anyone's point, disagreeing with anyone's evidence or experiences, and not saying we can't do better -- please don't jump on this disclaimer as if there's not a desire to improve -- but I just want to say that a really big challenge for me personally and for WMATA employees in general is to be able to hear such a wide range of intense, disparate views and experiences and make sense of them and to prioritize problem-solving responses. It's a hell of a challenge not to reject the wildly critical and not to accept the embracing and supportive, and to find a middle ground where the feedback is simply "usable."

by A Metro Employee on Aug 10, 2010 10:11 pm • linkreport

I just recently moved to DC from South Jersey. Here we have PATCO, which runs from the NJ suburbs into Philly. PATCO (although much, much smaller) is quite similar to Metro - it was built around the same time and is having the same aging issues. I can't remember the last time I saw an operating escalator in any PATCO station and constant track work has led to considerably longer trips. The week before I moved I spent an hour sitting in a hot station, waiting for a train that was mysteriously delayed - when the train finally arrived, the air conditioning in the car was broken.

But still - PATCO and Metro blow SEPTA (Philadelphia subways) out of the water. Anyone who thinks Metro truly sucks should go up to Philly and see what a truly sucky transportation system looks like.

by Pat on Aug 10, 2010 10:31 pm • linkreport

"It's a hell of a challenge not to reject the wildly critical and not to accept the embracing and supportive, and to find a middle ground where the feedback is simply "usable.""

Well, yes. Sorry. But all of us feel like that in all of our jobs.

It would be nice if someone had access to some actual evidence about Metro customers' opinions. Surely someone has polled on this.

by PM on Aug 10, 2010 10:48 pm • linkreport

JTS: Probably doesn't. If you didn't notice, I discounted a lot of costs even in my post (environmental, Iraq). I find that the numbers are heavy enough if you basically tie one hand behind your back and drop any seriously contestable cost. For example, logically if we stopped doing the "cheap gas garrison" we could also drop procurement levels...but that's easily disputed as "who says we would", so I discounted it entirely and just used operational expenses.

by John on Aug 10, 2010 10:49 pm • linkreport

"They want things done for them and they'll complain until it's done, even if that time never comes. "

Yeah, screw DCers. Why don't they complain to their senators and congressmen.

by PM on Aug 10, 2010 10:52 pm • linkreport

Metro Employee,

Here's a thought. Up until very recently, the system WMATA had not been tested. This is in a sense, then, the beginning of WMATA.

I agree - the postings are very different. I find myself agreeing with one and then the next even though it may contradict the first one. Personally, I remember being in NYC and after waiting 35 minutes for a train, suggesting to my then boyfriend that we just go up and get a cab. He said no, so we waited some more. I knew then and there that we would break up.

How about starting with safety? Every action on behalf of Metro's employees goes to safety. Reliability should be up there too. Safety and reliability. It all should be geared towards those two things, and if so, then you will know you've hit all your marks. Metro should reorient and rebrand, if you will, itself to safety and reliability, do a PR campaign so that all riders know that that is what they're all about now.

Because, again, these last years are really the first time that Metro has been tested - before it was just a breeze. So this time now is the birth of Metro.

by Jazzy on Aug 10, 2010 10:52 pm • linkreport

What I dont understand is why so much of the metro has to be single tracked.

I lived in Boston for 5 years, and their system is obviously much, much older....and yet the downtime seems to be much, MUCH shorter. On metro its bustitution here, single tracking there, no service on the other end.... I understand maintenance, but why can Boston do their maintenance without lowering headways to every 30 minutes? It seems like every major holiday, half of metro is closed for repairs. Ive never seen anything like that in other cities.

One bit of positive: When metro shuts down stuff, they usually bustitute. When I was in London, they closed the DLR for the weekend....and no bus service. You needed to get to city airport? Take a cab. It was outrageous.

by Bike share on Aug 10, 2010 10:56 pm • linkreport

Metro in 2010 can't be compared to what it was a few years ago. For example, in 2002 I commuted to work from Clarendon to DC during rush hour for a summer job during high school. That was in the days when four car trains were more common than six car trains, and those trains were empty compared to today's Orange line trains. Today is obviously very different.

I get it, the area expands and people want to ride Metro. I'm not mad at Metro for that. I'm angry with Metro because they've failed to anticipate problems that could occur and didn't take steps to improve them. Yeah everything is easier in hindsight, but still get annoyed.

by Max D. on Aug 11, 2010 12:01 am • linkreport

Best in the world would require additional rail tracks on every line to avoid delays by "sick passengers", "mechanical problems" and "a train at Ft. Totten experiencing mechanical difficulties aka crash".

It would require employees to be considerate. Buses to run on time. And Board members that actually attends their meetings.

by Redline SOS on Aug 11, 2010 8:38 am • linkreport

To the commentor that said if you have ridden any other subway system, this system is crap. Well I have ridden the New York subway system in the '80's when you took your life in your hands to use it. There was a pan handler on every stair. There are very few escalators to break down so you lug your luggage up and down stairs. The place smelled of urine. It was dark and dingy with tons of graffiti. That is not what I would call a great system. It is also way more in the hole moneywise than DC.

I have also used the London system quite often. It is often dirty because they allow people to eat on it. Many people just dump their trash on the train. And talk about escalators, I remember when they were wood until they had a terrible fire, that killed many people, a lot more than our accidents, and they finally replaced them. But just like our system they were not pro active. They did nothing until people died. So, lets not have selective memory and rewrite history. Most of the major systems in the world have money problems and service problems.

If we were willing to have a dedicated stream of funding, like every other system has, we might be able to deal with these problems in a timely fashion. Talk about provincial, our local jurisdictions are provinal, and don't want to help metro.

by Steph on Aug 11, 2010 8:50 am • linkreport

Can we just go ahead and give the eulogy on this thread?

Ugh, what a stinking mess. Write a post about how people complain and just end up with more asocial, disheartening, talking past one another, selfish b.s.

RIP, already.

by Josh S on Aug 11, 2010 9:31 am • linkreport

Whether Metro riders have a right to complain is a rather subjective subject. What is missing from the dialogue however is a group advocating on their behalf and a organization to channel their frustration through. Transportation Alternatives in NYC is joining with other groups on a Rider Rebellion campaign. Why aren't riders and advocates organizing here like that? Would the frustrated suburban federal workers join if there was?

by jeff on Aug 11, 2010 9:33 am • linkreport

To the commentator who couldn't be assed to go up and read my name again:

I'm comparing systems now, not 1980s NYCS to 2000s WMATA. Yes, London's Tube has issues, but you're comparing a system that has over a billion passenger rides a year to one that barely does 300 million. And inaction on London's part does not mean we have to suffer. Well, you, really, since I've stopped riding Metro Fail.

by varun on Aug 11, 2010 9:36 am • linkreport

@John,
I'm not sure you have really shown autos to be more subsidized than transit. Accepting the Minnesota estimate that there is a subsidy of $2/gallon, that would mean that I pay 50c/mi to drive my car and get a subsidy of about 7c/mi, so 15% of my drive is subsidized. Considering the capital and operating cost of Metro, isn't the ride about 70% subsidized?
Viewing national defense as a cost of our use of fossil fuels overstates the subsidy. Ships guarding tankers are a cost of fossil fuel use--but there are many other reasons that we intervene.
Finally, the social subsidy of fuel use applies to Metro as well as an automobile. The construction and operation of Metro used quite a bit of energy. I recall a study by the Congressional Budget Office that car pools are more energy efficient than light rail, which is in turn far more energy efficient than heavy rail. (What makes Metro ultimately an energy saver is the facilitation dense development, not suburban-city commuting.)

by Jim on Aug 11, 2010 9:43 am • linkreport

@Jazzy I wouldn't change a word you wrote.

@PM Here's a link to a regular, WMATA-funded (yes, I know...) customer satisfaction survey. It's what we have. Constructive suggestions to improve?

www.wmata.com/about_metro/scorecard/documents/Metro%20Customer%20Satisfaction%20FY10%20Q3.pdf

by A Metro Employee on Aug 11, 2010 9:44 am • linkreport

Viewing national defense as a cost of our use of fossil fuels overstates the subsidy. Ships guarding tankers are a cost of fossil fuel use--but there are many other reasons that we intervene.

We're in Iraq (and Afghanistan as well) because of petroleum. Period. So let's add the projected $2.4 trillion dollars to that subsidy.

by oboe on Aug 11, 2010 10:10 am • linkreport

>you're totally omitting the fact that overhead goes up for maintenance and capital investment as a result of higher consumption.

I didn't say there are no costs for new riders, I said more riders makes the system more efficient. Those are qualitatively different statements.

On transit, the more riders you have the lower the cost (and greater the time savings) per rider, as compared to driving.

by BeyondDC on Aug 11, 2010 10:17 am • linkreport

Call me a hater but there is plenty to complain about with Metro. I see a confluence of an aging Metrorail infrastructure, funding and governance. Yes, Metrorail is aging and I think we are finding out that the current structure of WMATA (starting with the board) is not well-suited to manage an aging system with safety issues. I accept that WMATA needs more money and that this would best be in the form of a dedicated funding source (yes, a Tax!).

This is where the 'hate' comes in. I am probably not the only Metro user who is not inclined to give WMATA more money (dedicated funding) without a major management restructuring. I believe the current management is clueless and/or powerless about what to do regarding safety, technology and workforce management.

by Joe on Aug 11, 2010 10:47 am • linkreport

As a former resident of Miami and Atlanta, I fully appreciate how much more comprehensive Metro is. I sold my car, and bike/Metro around the city. Metro, in general, is a pretty good system.

However, I've now lived here for more than five years, and there's just some unbelievable, sometimes unforgivable mistakes that Metro makes, that make me understand why there's Metro hate (and why half of workers in DC drive to work.)

If Macys department stores all over the country can maintain a set of working escalators, why can't Metro? Seriously. Escalator technology has been with us for quite some time.

If trains are clearly at-or-past capacity, why can't Metro remove or reconfigure seats? Are the seats somehow a part of the structure of the train?

If carpets are always stained and smelly and full of the daily suck of many days, why not remove the damned carpets?

If a train stalls out for a half hour in a tunnel, why not have the operator offer a message to the trapped, crowded, annoyed riding public? Is there really any harm in saying "sorry we're late, folks?"

If the walls of the station are growing lichens on mold on dirt, why not spray the damned walls and clean them?

All of these are basically cheap (or free) ways to improve Metro. I respect that the other issues, like a commuter train now being used as urban mass transit, like the very real, very annoying fact that the train doesn't go everywhere...are structural and require money and time and vision. But you ain't gonna get the money and time if you don't have enough vision to make escalators work!

by AaroniusLives on Aug 11, 2010 11:02 am • linkreport

@ Jeff - I believe there is a rider advisory seat on metro board (I'm not sure of the details) - maybe they need to be more visible

I agree with Pitingolo's and other's assessments - metro is having trouble living up to high expectations (always functional AC in cars, cheap $1.10 fares, no escalator problems) expectations which don't consider the complexities of addressing them (the need for greater investment, a belief that metro escalators are shopping mall escalators, what changes are underway).
That said, I do think new, stronger management will need to assess priorities. For instance, I think it makes more sense for metro to strengthen hazard analysis to avoid critical safety failures (like faulty circuits) than to devote significant resources to replacing 1000 series cars that poorly handle critical safety failures. Even then, either change will have minimal impact on daily rider conditions.

by Tmichaels on Aug 11, 2010 11:42 am • linkreport

@Tmichaels: I believe there is a rider advisory seat on metro board (I'm not sure of the details) - maybe they need to be more visible

That is not true. There are no rider seats on the Metro board.

by David Alpert on Aug 11, 2010 11:47 am • linkreport

So what is case? I know I've read something about a rider representative to metro. Was it just proposed and didn't happen?

by Tmichaels on Aug 11, 2010 12:08 pm • linkreport

Tmichaels, if Metro escalators were shopping mall escalators, they'd work. That's the key difference.

We could even compare a more used set of escalators, such as those at the Atlanta airport, or the several well-trafficked escalators up and down the Las Vegas Strip, trod upon by hundreds of thousands of tourists a day.

They. All. Work.

I'd even give Metro escalators a little more props if (who am I kidding, if...when) an escalator is out, can we make the one that is working go "up" instead of "down?"

As for "the complexities of addressing [Metro problems]", I think that people on this site are well-aware of the issues and the complexities. I'd even venture to say that Washington residents, being more involved and engaged than most, are more aware of the complexities. And as an urbanist, I'm very pro-Metro and transit in general...as I suspect are the many visitors of this site.

Metro is in need of both greater investment and a large, visionary expansion of the entire system. The investment in the existing system is clearly long overdue and badly needed. The visionary expansion needs to address the new and developing urban realities of Washington as it grows ever more dense and ever less car-dependent.

My point is that there's an image problem right now. How can we maintain and build a better Metro when we can't make escalators run? (There is no amount of convincing that will make me believe that escalator technology is just all that hard to keep running.) I'm thrilled that the Silver Line is eventually going to expand the system and connect us to Dulles. I'd be more thrilled if the carpets didn't reek and the a/c didn't leak.

Mind you, I'll deal with all of the issues because I'm urban. I believe in transit, walking to work, building for people instead of cars and the rest. I, like many of the people who frequent this site, probably feel the same way about Metro. But there's about 50% of the population of DC that doesn't. And should, because it REALLY sucks if one believes that it's better to drive in traffic-clogged DC, than it is to take the Metro.

by Aaron on Aug 11, 2010 12:16 pm • linkreport

Tmichaels: I've suggested it a few times. Unfortunately, they don't restructure the Metro board on my say-so.

by David Alpert on Aug 11, 2010 12:21 pm • linkreport

People who ride metro have different experiences - I live in the city and ride metro every day to work, and many times on the weekend as well. But a) I only ride it 5 stops to work, and b) I start work by 7 am and I'm home by 5 pm, so I miss the overcrowding during rush hour. Therefore, I love metro. I almost never, ever experience a delay. Also, I walk up and down every escalator anyway, so I don't care if it's not working.

If you ride long distances during the peak of rush hour, you'll have a qualitatively different experience than I do.

The DC area is full of transplants from, for the most part, non-urban areas of the U.S., people who have never experienced mass transit, and are now forced to ride metro because driving a car to work is economically unfeasable, and they resent that; they'd rather drive. So they are loaded for bear, ready to complain. Mix that with crowded trains, delays, broken escalators - that's why people complain about metro.

How to improve metro: they should have torn out the carpets and changed the seating configuration on metro long ago. Those changes alone would vastly improve metro.

Escalators break partly because they are exposed to the weather and partly because they just do. Metro is different than most subways around the world - it has multiple escaltors in every station, and to street level in every station. They should take out the shorter ones and put in stairs and free up the maintenance budget to keep the long runs running.

They need better management. Period.

But my experience of metro is still good.

by kwest on Aug 11, 2010 12:24 pm • linkreport

They should take out the shorter ones and put in stairs and free up the maintenance budget to keep the long runs running.

This comment FTW. A straightforward, simple proposal that is exactly the type of thinking I wish we'd see from WMATA leadership.

by JTS on Aug 11, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

"I dont get this Pitingolo love. So far he has not asked one interesting question. The real question here is why do people who bitch about metrorail when 1/2 of them don't pay for it -- and the truly negative experiences is rising the bus, not the train."

Perhaps because WMATA got to steal the highway funds at a time when the Washington, D.C. metro area was planned to have both WMATA and freeways. Yet something fishy would happen to the planning, in particular John F. Kennedy's B&O route North Central Freeway, to generate a most malleable opposition that bought the myth that building transit somehow required stopping freeways.

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2006/12/1962-national-capital-transportation.html

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2010/05/jfk-administration-gave-us-b-north.html

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/05/1964-north-central-freeway-routing_08.html

Please recall that this theft occurred AFTER the planned freeways were radically redesigned to preserve the area they would have passed through, so it was not about neighborhood preservation.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Aug 11, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

Second the recommendation by kwest - stairs require much less maintenance.

Re: escalators, I based what I wrote on a recent Post article that discussed this (I'd link to it if I knew how) - It noted WMATA dissatisfaction with the contractors they were hiring for repair maintenace. In response, the article indicated metro was no longer outsourcing that responsibility, and had a schedule to completely replace some escalators to renew their lifespan (before they start breaking down). If I hadn't read that I would have been more likely to view the escalator situation as hopeless and WMATA as not doing anything. It also made the contrast to shopping mall escalators - suggesting metro escalators face greater use (hours-in-the-day/rider load) and perhaps size (longer than those in malls).
If metro could better publicize what it is doing (and what causes problems) I think it might help with their image problem.

by Tmichaels on Aug 11, 2010 1:19 pm • linkreport

Re- the escalators.

Is not the problem is that they are designed for indoor use yet are partially subjected to the weather?

by Douglas A. Willinger on Aug 11, 2010 1:24 pm • linkreport

WMATA has looked at replacing shorter escalators with stairs. They opted not to do it. It would indeed save money in the long term, but would require a significant outlay in the short term:

http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/board_of_directors/board_docs/101206_4ccompiled.pdf

by Alex B. on Aug 11, 2010 1:28 pm • linkreport

I can't help but laugh every time I hear someone cite Metro's age as a justification for the latest breakdown when other system such as the NYC Subway, London Underground and Paris Metro have been running for 100+ years and are still more reliable than Metro. Instead of making excuses for the stunningly disconnected, unaccountable and frankly incompetent organization that is WMATA why not admit that the system is in the its' current condition as a result of years of mismanagement and will only get worse until major changes at every level of the organization make it clear that mismanagement and incompetence are no longer acceptable.

by Jacob on Aug 11, 2010 2:15 pm • linkreport

why not admit that the system is in the its' current condition as a result of years of mismanagement and will only get worse until major changes at every level of the organization make it clear that mismanagement and incompetence are no longer acceptable.

OK - let's admit that - Now that you got that off your chest, what next? Care to actually help identify the problems so they can be fixed?

Also, the premise that Metro's age isn't part of the problem is just false - many of Metro's parts, particularly in the oldest sections of the system, are pushing 40 years old and they are in need of replacement. For lots of the big items (track, etc), Metro has extensive plans to keep that infrastructure in a state of good repair through track replacements and so on.

by Alex B. on Aug 11, 2010 2:26 pm • linkreport

Metro Employee, thanks for the link, but that survey raises more questions than it answers. I am a little skeptical that it is randomized--the household income numbers look high. On the other hand, Googling reveals that they aren't all that far out of step with the region, so maybe the skewness by income isn't that bad.

But what would be useful would be a long-term "Metro approval index", similar to what we have for the presidency. Yes, such things are hard to come by (Although the European Union maintains one), but in the absence of such information all we'll ever have is people trading anecdotes back and forth.

by PM on Aug 11, 2010 2:43 pm • linkreport

The comparison to Chicago is laughable. As a daily 'L' rider, the only comment that is accurate is the fare being 2.25. I ride Metro every time I am in the area for business and I'm green with envy! Here in Chicago our trains are frequently packed beyond capacity, the HVAC is hit or miss, and the doors malfunction with some regularity. If you want to see Metro's future, come visit a much larger city with an ancient rapid transit system. The only thing it has going for it is that it does get you from point A to point B for a reasonable fare. Other than that, Metro seems like transit nirvana by comparison.

by TrainRider on Aug 11, 2010 2:50 pm • linkreport

Wow. Lots of hand-waving and posturing going on here.

I'm not sure what to add...with the exception of the escalators, Metro seems to do reasonably well with the cards that it is given. The real issue that needs to be addressed before any others, I think, is to make sure that Metro's funding is consistent and offered in good faith. Many of the problems being discussed here seem to stem from the fact that the agency is forced to do things "by the seat of their pants," thanks to the agency's funding model. It's bloody difficult to plan maintenance when you can't budget for it.

Rider communication is also a big deal that the agency has failed on. A rider seat on the board is crucial. For instance, the northeastern portion of the Red Line will be closing for an entire weekend around Labor day. Although this will be a rather significant inconvenience for 3 days, it will allegedly save the agency $1 million, and 150 days of single-tracking work. If we could trade 2 or 3 weekends a year to prevent the incessant Red Line singletracking that's dominated the past few months, I'm sure most riders would readily jump at the opportunity. There needs to be somebody on the board to shout that 30 minute headways are unacceptable.

by andrew on Aug 11, 2010 4:28 pm • linkreport

"You know what sucks more than anything ever anywhere? WHATEVER IT IS THAT JUST PISSED ME OFF BRIEFLY."

+100

by Just161 on Aug 12, 2010 3:10 pm • linkreport

Re: escalator issues--wasn't this addressed by Metro a few years back with the creation of the large glass/steel Domes that now cover most Metro stations in an effort to minimize weatherization?

Wasn't there even a design competition for the domes? I think this was a smart/good/easy solution for the most part.

And yes, I second the changing of some of the shorter escalators to stairs. If I recall, in Paris and London there are stairs in many of the shallower stations and they work just fine.

Also, as someone who has been on several Metro/Subway systems around the World, I do have to say that each of those has their problems as well and I remember the A/C being out, trains being overcrowded, not running frequently and a host of other issues (pick-pockets, trash, dirt/smells) that currently are not a big issue on Metro.

I think we like to complain in DC, and yes, the reality is Metro is pretty good compared to other older/more crowded systems..

BUT I think it's also true that a lot of simple things could be done to improve the quality of the ride for most folks and that Metro has allowed the quality to deteriorate while increasing fares. Not a good combination.

by Stefan Sittig on Aug 16, 2010 2:15 pm • linkreport

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