Posts about WMATA
Yesterday morning, the Chicago Transit Authority closed the southern end of the Red Line for 5 months of reconstruction. Should WMATA consider a similar approach? There are advantages, but also big dangers as well.
WMATA's rebuilding problem, which it dubs Metro Forward, has been going on for over 2 years with no end in sight. Almost every weekend brings at least one major closure, like on the Green Line last weekend. When it's over, Metro will be more reliable and passengers will experience fewer problems. But in the meantime, riders face service delays and other disruptions almost every weekend. Could a different approach work?
The CTA thinks so. Its Red Line South reconstruction project will close a portion of Chicago's busiest line for 5 months. According to the CTA, the project would have taken 4 years to finish if it restricted the work to weekends only.
The agency chose to give both weekday commuters and weekend riders a lot of pain over a short time, rather than stretch it out over a long time. When finished, the reconstruction project will reduce travel times between 95th Street and Roosevelt by 20 minutes and will make the Red Line more reliable. By closing the entire line at once, riders will get to see those benefits sooner.
In the meantime, riders will have many alternatives to the Red Line, including several shuttle bus options to other L stations. Because of the increased volume of riders changing from shuttles to rail, CTA has also made temporary capacity improvements to the Garfield station on the nearby Green Line, including new staircases, faregates, and bus bays.
Additionally, the Red Line itself will be rerouted over part of the Green Line, and will operate 24 hours during the closure. To prepare for this, the CTA undertook an aggressive maintenance regimen on the Green Line track and structure, since trains will be running all the time, preventing any overnight maintenance.
However, there can be trade-offs. The Baltimore Light Rail was built as a single-track system with sidings where trains could pass one another. In 2004 and 2005, the Maryland Transit Administration closed each end of the line for about 6 months to reconstruct the line with two tracks. Before the project, train headways were limited to 17 minutes. Now, trains can run much more frequently.
During that time, MTA ran local and express shuttle buses to get riders around the closure, but ridership fell by 20% due to the inconvenience and took 3 years to recover, according to a source at MTA. When riders don't have transit options for long periods of time, they make alternate arrangements, like moving or purchasing a car.
If WMATA were to close a line for a long time, the agency could help to mitigate the inconvenience to riders by working with local jurisdictions to set up temporary bus lanes, signal priority, and other transit improvements. Adding additional buses to parallel routes, routing buses to different terminals, and discounting fares are all approaches that could help keep riders on board during the work.
Metro Forward is a big undertaking, and even when it's done, weekend work may still be necessary for future repairs. But for large projects, like Metro's years-long Red Line rehab, closures might get the work done sooner. However, it would cause significant disruption and a potential drop in ridership.
Many major transit systems offer a "service guarantee" policy where riders get a free trip or a refund if there are severe delays, but WMATA's policy is much more limited. After repeated rail delays, some riders are demanding a better deal.
Rockville resident Dave Tucker recently complained to WMATA on Twitter after his train was evacuated due to brake problems. Officials replied that they were "prohibited from providing fare adjustments for delays caused by mechanical problems and other conditions beyond [Metro's] control," Tucker reported, but as a "gesture of goodwill," they gave Tucker two free one-way passes.
WMATA's current "service guarantee" policy falls short of best practices in other cities. During major delays, you can leave from your original station without paying, but only if station agents allow it. Metro should make its policy more flexible.
If you get trapped behind a stalled train for an hour halfway to your destination, you have two options. One is to stay put and hope you get there, all while paying full price. The other is to try and return to your origin, maybe be able to exit without paying, and then try to get to your destination another way.
Plus, are mechanical problems really beyond Metro's control? Only if they're caused by "acts of God" or by customers jamming the doors. More often than not, mechanical failure happens because of insufficient maintenance or sloppy inspections. Those are WMATA's fault, and when they result in delays, customers deserve refunds.
Other major transit systems offer customers a free future trip if they are delayed for a certain length of time. Philadelphia's SEPTA offers a free trip to riders after 50 minutes, while Boston's MBTA will give you a free trip after just 30 minutes.
Transport for London's service guarantee program goes even further, giving refunds to any customer after a 15-minute delay. Arlington resident Samer Farha explained his experiences during a recent trip to London, where he used Oyster card, their equivalent of SmarTrip. According to Farha, when his trip was delayed, Transport for London (TfL) emailed him to apologize. TfL told him the refund would go back on his card the next time he entered the system. Farha could even log in to TfL's website and choose which station he wanted to credit to go to.
With Metro's current state of repair, a 15-minute window might be a little aggressive, but the agency could at least allow customers to request a refund for delays of 30 minutes or more.
Metro should also let customers leave from the station they entered from, without having to wait for officials to declare a "major delay," as long as they leave within 30 minutes. If you bail out because the train is taking too long, what does it matter how long the delay is? You haven't used Metro for transportation, and shouldn't pay anything.
If WMATA has to refund customers when it's at fault, that could give employees and officials alike an incentive to start making the system more reliable. The number of customer refunds could become a performance metric which goes in reports to the WMATA board.
Metro promises its riders a safe, reliable means of transportation, though it doesn't always deliver. A service guarantee would acknowledge that they make mistakes and respect their customers' time and money.
Starting Monday, Metrorail riders can purchase a "short trip" pass online or at a fare machine and apply it to their SmarTrip cards. It's a big improvement for Metro customers that commute regularly and use Metro on the weekends or for additional trips in the evenings.
The pass costs $35 and is good for one week. It covers all off-peak trips and the first $3.50 of peak trips. If you take a trip costing more than $3.50, the difference comes out of the stored value on your SmarTrip.
Metro already offers SmarTrip passes that give rail riders unlimited rides of any length. Those cost $15 for one day, $57.50 for a week and $230 for 28 days. Those are useful for riders taking longer, more expensive trips. But those who only ride a few stops won't find that pass worthwhile. These new "short trip" passes are much cheaper because they don't cover long trips that riders may not need.
"Short trip" passes were previously available only as a paper farecard. If you took a trip of more than $3.50, you would have to use the Exitfare machine to pay the exact fare when leaving. Putting the pass on a SmarTrip card is much more convenient for riders who take the occasional longer trip, because the faregates can automatically calculate and deduct the extra fare.
Next, consider discounts and even passes for even shorter trips
You can also subscribe online to have the pass automatically renew when the old one is about to expire. For some riders, this is a good option. But since the pass costs the equivalent of 10 rides, it's not such a good deal that you'd want to set it and forget it, which could mean you'd end up buying one even on weeks with work holidays or vacation. I'd like to see a monthly pass with a discount, so that more riders would find it worthwhile to just buy passes automatically even around holidays.
Now that Metro's figured out how to implement a pass where people pay and get trips under a certain amount free, they could even try offering passes with a threshold below $3.50. For example, a pass that costs $100 per month and allows all trips under $2.50 each way for free might be very popular among riders that live in DC.
Give credit for bus transfers
One downside to the "short trip" pass is that it doesn't discount transfers between bus and rail. WMATA representatives have previously said that allowing transfer discounts to pass holders would be like giving discounts on top of discounts.
However, the transfer discount used to be available for pass holders when WMATA used paper transfer slips. When the WMATA Board approved replacing them with SmarTrip tracking, there was no discussion about eliminating the discount as well.
The discount isn't really a "discount," anyway. It's a recognition that a trip that uses bus and rail is really one trip on two modes, and the fare probably shouldn't be the same as two totally separate trips. You don't pay double the rail fare if you transfer between rail lines. In many cities, like New York, a bus plus rail trip costs the same as just one trip alone.
WMATA should restore the transfer discounts for all pass holders, and give riders with a rail pass the same reduced fare on the bus as any rider coming from a rail trip. Similarly, all riders should get the same fare when they transfer from bus to rail, whether or not they have a Metrobus pass.
All in all, "short trip" passes on SmarTrip are a great option, and I expect to subscribe to them in the future.
WMATA has chosen a brand for its upcoming Crystal City Potomac Yard BRT line: Metro Way, featuring a flashy new blue paint scheme.
The BRT line will run south from Pentagon City through Crystal City and then into Alexandria. It will have dedicated lanes, with large rail-like stations. The line will run every 6 minutes during rush hour and every 12-15 minutes at other times.
In a few years it will be upgraded to a streetcar line. But in the meantime, it's the DC region's first bona fide BRT.
WMATA selected the Metro Way brand and livery following a survey this past March that considered several options. The blue livery, although clearly unique, reflects the blue Metro uses for its MetroExtra express buses.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
When the Silver Line opens later this year, the Metro map will have to fit in a silver stripe where the Orange and Blue Lines traverse DC. Metro has
a two new drafts of the new map and wants to hear from riders.
The main challenge in the map's design is how to show 3 lines all running together. Until the Silver Line, no track segment had 3 lines. When there are 2 lines, the map shows a small dot in between the two. But what to do with 3?
In our 2011 contest, people tried a lot of solutions, like much thinner lines (like most transit systems), striped lines, pairs or triples of dots, or just bigger dots and much more.
Metro's first draft used little "whiskers" on each side of the circle. A few people liked them, but most hated them and pushed for "pill" or "capsule"-shaped station symbols instead, or thinner lines.
Metro now has a new version that incorporates those suggestions. It shrinks the line width by 24%, which still leaves fatter lines than in other transit systems, but much slimmer than the current map. In this option, the stations with 3 lines now use the "capsule" shapes. They also created a new version that keeps the "whiskers" but cleans up the map in other ways.
What works, and where there could be a few more tweaks
The capsule version is much better than the previous versions. The curves are very tight and clean. The thinner lines look better, and the capsules are superior to the "whiskers."
It seems to me that for consistency with the circles, the capsules should be as large on the rounded ends as the small circles are today
Booth had very harsh words for the current map (redesigned last year). He pointed out many technical errors, like the way the parking P and hospital H icons didn't line up with the text at all. Metro has corrected at least some of these, like one Booth pointed out:
Text alignment on part of the Red Line. Left: Current Rush Plus map. Image by Cameron Booth from WMATA base map. Right: New map. Image by David Alpert from WMATA base map.
Metro also abandoned an idea of abbreviating words like "Ctr" and "Hgts" in station names (another choice Booth panned), but they are abbreviating "Rd," "St," "Ave," and "Blvd" for all stations. The original map abbreviated some but not all road types.
As the map goes through iterations, some have repeatedly pointed out that there is considerable parkland east of the Anacostia, including right along the river, but none appears on the map. Given that even the Pentagon (a large office fortress with parking lots and highways around it) gets to be inside a "park" space on this map, it seems reasonable to put some green along the east bank of the Anacostia.
It continues to mystify why Metro doesn't want to put the "Farragut Crossing" out-of-system transfer on the map. If it did appear, that could entice some casual users to take it instead of crowding trains through Metro Center.
While Metro is adjusting lines a little, it also would be smart to move Metro Center and Gallery Place closer together, so that fewer tourists take the Red Line one stop and then transfer, and put Union Station nearer the Capitol, because it's the station closest to the Senate.
Overall, the capsule map seems best, and the map overall is moving definitively in the right direction. Especially compared to the pre-Rush Plus map, where curves were all uneven, some labels were not even at a 45-degree angle, and everything was just a mess in so many tiny ways, the map has gotten far more professional.
Update/note: The image at the top does not show the legend and other information that's at the top or bottom of the map. You can click on an image to see the full map including header and footer.
Update 2: The original version of this post said that Metro has a new version with capsule station symbols, but in fact they have 2 new versions, one of which has capsule symbols and the other with whisker symbols. I misunderstood the whisker version Metro posted as being the old one rather than a revised whisker one. The post has now been updated to show both new versions as well as the correct previous one and the current map.
After the "NextBus" iPhone app disappeared last year, bus riders found themselves searching for a new app to track the locations of buses. Since then, a host of new apps have appeared to fill the void. But is there such a thing as the "perfect" app for iPhone owners?
I tested 4 iPhone apps to see which one made it easiest to find bus information: NextBus by Cubic, DC Next Bus by Junebot, BusTrackDC by Jason Rosenbaum, and iCommute DC Lite by AppTight, the reincarnation of the previous NextBus application.
Three of these apps are available for free from the iTunes Store, while NextBus's is actually a website whose shortcut you can place on your home screen.
These apps' user interfaces fall into two categories: map-based and text-based. The map-based apps make it easier to find bus stops, and they are handy when you aren't sure where the nearest bus stop might be or the buses that pass through. However, map-based apps are more difficult to use in spots with many bus stops close together.
Meanwhile, more experienced bus riders who already know the location of bus stops or which bus route to take may prefer a text-based app. You can quickly filter through unnecessary information to get prediction times for a specific route.
Some apps have other regional bus systems besides Metrobus, such as Circulator, Ride On, and ART, while many don't.
Both map-based apps, BusTrackDC and DC Next Bus, automatically find your location on a map in relation to surrounding bus stops. They use standard map pins to represent bus stops; you can see what routes serve each pin by tapping on them.
This works well except in areas with numerous bus stops and routes in the same area, such as Silver Spring or downtown DC. The map pins are so close together it becomes frustrating to obtain information on the intended bus route, let alone the direction.
Meanwhile, on both apps I sometimes got "No Prediction" for various bus routes, but if I touched a different bus stop location farther down the street along the same bus route, I could get a timed prediction. DC Next Bus has the option to turn on Ride On data but says that it's unreliable, while neither app provides DC Circulator information.
The two text-based apps, iCommute DC Lite and NextBus, are designed differently. Users of the defunct "NextBus" app, will find the interface of iCommute DC Lite very familiar, since the creators of the old NextBus app built iCommuteDC Lite.
If it's confusing that one app called NextBus went away and its developers now call the app iCommute DC Lite while there's another option called NextBus by Cubic, you're not alone. It's because there were 2 companies called NextBus which had split apart years ago. The one that ran the real-time predictions on the WMATA site (also called "NextBus") provided data to the other; the 2nd one licensed it to the people who now make iCommuteDC.
The relationship ended, the app died, and the developers rebuilt the app with a new name and a data feed direct from the first NextBus company, which around the same time was bought by Cubic, maker of the SmarTrip system and other transit technology.
iCommuteDC Lite gives you two ways to view information: you can see stops nearby your current location, or pick a specific agency and then a route from that agency. This app supports many transportation agencies, including Metrobus, DC Circulator, ART, and CUE.
If you select stops based on your location, the app only displays a route number and not which operator the route corresponds with.
Nextbus by Cubic has a simpler, more readable format, using the whole screen to display the bus routes nearest you. Once you select a route and desired direction, the app opens up a map with the real-time location of each bus along that route, something none of the other apps do.
This app also provides alerts to current problems or delays with each transit provider. It also works outside of the DC Metro area, providing bus information on the Charm City Circulator, Collegetown Shuttle, JHMI Shuttle, and the University of Maryland shuttle buses in Baltimore. However, this app only shows systems that contract with NextBus/Cubic, which means Arlington ART and Ride On don't appear.
During testing, I encountered times when the NextBus by Cubic app had predictions for some Metrobus lines, while other apps returned "No Prediction." All of the Metrobus data ultimately comes from the same transponders on the buses, so it should be identical, but since NextBus/Cubic is WMATA's vendor, if any errors creep into the WMATA API then they might affect all apps but not NextBus.
WMATA spokesperson Brian Anderson says that a March data feed included some incorrect stop ID numbers, which can affect apps that use a particular method of accessing stop IDs. Anderson was able to confirm that one specific example I sent over, for the 96 bus in Adams Morgan, was a consequence of this problem. He said WMATA staff are working to correct the data and coordinating closely with developers to help them with any problems.
NextBus by Cubic's data isn't perfect, either. At one point, for example, the Metrobus S2 and S4 routes didn't appear even while standing at an S2/S4 stop on Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. The well-known problems with "ghost buses" and other common errors in the actual predictions will also affect all apps.
Which app should you use?
All four apps have their strengths and weaknesses. You may want to install more than one, and can use a text-based app when you know what bus you want and a map-based app when you don't.
Especially for experienced riders, NextBus by Cubic is hard to beat for usability. Its text-based interface is easy to read, quick to filter information for all operators, and offers more bus systems than the other apps. It also sometimes returned predictions when the others did not.
Riders who use multiple bus systems may also need more than one app. If you want to ride the DC Circulator, BusTrackDC or DC Next Bus won't help you. NextBus by Cubic has the greatest number of bus systems, but not ART and Ride On.
Have you tried these apps? Which one do you find most useful for your daily commuting needs?
Nearly every Metro fare machine has a paper sign on it: "Using a paper farecard? Add $1 to every trip." Yet even with this reminder, some riders get stuck at the faregates, wondering why Metro won't let them leave.
Most people riding Metro use SmarTrip, and that's great. But the ones that are more likely to need extra help with a fare table are the infrequent customers that use a paper farecard.
It makes no sense to list SmarTrip prices on the fare table and then ask people to add $1. Riders shouldn't need to do math to figure out how much to put on their farecards. We want to make purchasing a farecard as easy as possible, while not necessarily offering them the best deal possible.
The simplest solution would be to list the paper farecard prices on the tables, and then have notes that SmarTrip riders get a discount. Even if these riders don't notice, they'll just end up with extra money on their cards, which they can use later.
An even better approach would be to eliminate the $1 surcharge, and instead always charge peak fares for people using paper farecards. The fare machines would simply list the peak fare for each destination, with a note that SmarTrip customers get discounts during off-peak, discounted transfers to and from trips on buses, protected fare balances (with registration) and a guarantee that they won't be trapped in the system if their balance goes too low.
All paper farecard customers would have to do is look up their destination, and make sure their farecard had the corresponding amount. No math, no timetables, no figuring out whether it's currently peak or off-peak.
WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel said the agency is aware of the confusion and complaints about these signs, and is "considering" making changes to the posted fare tables and signs.
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