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Metro trying new technology, communication with parking

Parking operations have always been a relatively staid and unexciting part of Metro's operations, but suddenly it's rife with innovation and some of the best communication with riders anywhere in the organization.

Image from Tri-Met.

Metro is piloting a secure bike room in the College Park garage, and asked riders for input on how and whether to charge for access. Another pilot will try electronic sensors at Fort Totten's kiss-and-ride to give real-time occupancy data.

The planning department is sharing this on a blog, which is Metro's only one. It's unlikely these posts take much staff time to write, but provide valuable rider feedback and the kind of communication the public is constantly asking for.

The planning and joint development department at WMATA recently took over responsibility for parking. The planners set out aggressive goals for increasing bicycle mode share. Then, they started moving ahead with the secure room in College Park, and posted on the blog about various options for charging.

Should the room be free? Should there be a yearly fee, like $50, and/or a per-day fee, like 15-25¢? Should the payment go on SmarTrip or use a separate card, like Boston does, or be administered by a 3rd party company, like Portland does?

I agree with the people who've weighed in so far that the room should be either free or charge a very small per-use charge. As WMATA already noted in its pedestrian and bicycle access study, increasing biking to stations, especially in suburban areas, decreases the demand for parking and saves money in the long run.

On the car side, very little data is available to make decisions about parking capacity needs or prices to charge. Right now, the only data we have is the total number of drivers who pay fares at a given lot per day, but not how early the lots fill up or how much turnover they experience.

Riders in cars also have no way to know if garages are going to be full or have space when they arrive. The Fort Totten pilot is trying these sensors at the small kiss-and-ride lot, and if successful, could expand to other types of parking. Then WMATA would know how full its garages are by hour and day, and riders could get information via smartphones or roadside signs.

PlanItMetro shows how WMATA could quickly catch up to other government agencies in electronic communications. While many DC agencies are using blogs, Twitter and Facebook to develop two-way communication with residents, progress in customer service communication at WMATA has been slow.

As we are seeing with parking and PlanItMetro, it's totally possible for WMATA to be innovative and move relatively quickly to try out new technology. It's also totally possible to communicate well. All it takes is some innovative thinking and the ability to break out of old patterns.

Metro has some great people, but they need the opportunity to thrive. They need to be given new responsibilities where they can grow, and despite budget pressures, have the chance to make more money and move up in the organization. Nat Bottigheimer, the head of the planning department, has set a different tone within his part of the organization. Hopefully Richard Sarles will do the same for the rest of WMATA.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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3 points:

1) Pride. That what is missing in Metro. I'm sure some people want it back, and the job of the GM is to bring that down to the lowest levels. I saw a station manager out last night actually helping someone. It's a start.

2) Transaction costs: for something like bicycle parking, you have to consider the transactions costs. Charging anything might be more expensive that giving it away for free. The "market" can be an efficient way to discover pricing. It also can be misleading, and sometimes it is cheaper to do it for free than manage small payments.

3) WTF did it take so long to bring those electronic sensors to parking? I remember Perkins about two years trying to say there were too expensive.

by charlie on Jan 24, 2011 9:53 am • linkreport

Actually, I'm pretty sure those blog post take a pretty fair bit of staff time to write. Anyone who has worked in bureaucracy, which is what Metro is, can tell you that the number of people who need to review, comment on, and tinker with something like that is pretty high.

That does not mean they shouldn't be doing it. They absolutely should. It crucial for getting public engagement and feedback. It's a basic part of their job and the must do it.

However, I think it's short sited to ignore what does go into message development and message control in a large organization.

by Kate on Jan 24, 2011 9:54 am • linkreport

Don't we have enough data from BWI to know that parking sensors work? When I've traveled to BWI for trips, I've been impressed with how much easier it is to find parking quickly. Given all of Metro's budget woes, I hope they frame the importance of this project properly: to get more data so that existing resources can be managed best.

As to the secure bike room, I agree that there should be a minimal cost and that it should be payable with the Smart Card. Free resources tend to be treated poorly. Paying for something invests both buyer and seller in the transaction.

by Phil Lepanto on Jan 24, 2011 9:57 am • linkreport

@charlie: please find the comment I said that. I think I actually said it would save money because you can enforce parking regulations with fewer staff.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 24, 2011 9:57 am • linkreport

Metro already has sensors and a count monitor system in most non metered parking lots. They've spent a ton of money on the system; it's mostly not used and mostly not in operation.


by Kaleel on Jan 24, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

Bike parking should be a small fee, paid by Smartrip, and with a tranfer discount. The fee could be $1, with a 50c tranfer discount, just like bus riders get.

Bike stations back home after often staffed by reintegrating workers. That is, folks have been unemployed for so long, they're basically unemployable. By letting them man the bike stations temporarily, they get a bit of a work history. While they're there they get help looking for a real (non-subsidized) job. Handy thing for the city (which operates the bike parking) is that they get subsidized=cheap labor, as well as people of their welfare rolls.

by Jasper on Jan 24, 2011 12:50 pm • linkreport

"Metro would like to pilot a secure bicycle parking facility at College Park station"

The pilot has not begun yet. There is certainly no secure area to park a bike at the college park metro right now.

The current bike racks currently installed are easily unbolted from the ground with a simple ratchet set.

by Dan on Jan 24, 2011 2:20 pm • linkreport

@ Your last paragraph, which expresses hope that Richard Sarles will support the extension of this new communications tone more broadly throughout Metro.

I wanted to share a bit of what the GM/CEO sent to Metro employees last month about PlanItMetro which encouraged just that, while highlighting our engagement with the online community.

Last month, we launched an interactive website to encourage public input into our long-range planning process. In the short time since the site has been up, has received 2,400 visitors.

Nearly a third of the visits to the site came from people who keyed in, but many others linked from other websites, such as,,, and, who are giving the site good marks:

Fifty percent of the visits have been from the District of Columbia, 17 percent from Virginia and 14 percent from Maryland. The remaining visits have come from a wide variety of other states, including New York, Pennsylvania, California, Florida and Massachusetts. The most popular areas of the site are the Metrobus High Priority Corridors Map and the Union Station Simulation post, as well as the Regional Transit System Plan “mini-site.”

Kudos to [the] team on a good beginning for this initiative.

by Nat Bottigheimer on Jan 24, 2011 5:46 pm • linkreport

The bike parking at College Park shouldn't be free unless they can provide enough capacity that it almost never fills up. And I don't think they can provide that much capacity. There's a ton of demand for secure bike parking at College Park. I've been on the waiting list for a bike locker there for two years and haven't gotten one yet.

It's the same concept as performance parking for cars: charge a price just high enough to make sure that there's always a little bit of space available. I'm a little bit surprised that someone who supports performance parking for cars doesn't realize that the same concept should apply for bikes.

by Rob on Jan 24, 2011 8:13 pm • linkreport

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