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

Posts about WMATA


How to give Metro's safety commission real teeth

Erek Barron and Marc Korman are members of Maryland's House of Delegates, representing Prince George's County and Montgomery County, respectively.

Photo by Kurt Raschke on Flickr.

A 2012 federal statute requires the jurisdictions that make up WMATA to establish a safety oversight commission to oversee Metrorail safety. This will succeed the discredited Tri-State Oversight Committee, a partnership between Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia that was supposed to oversee safety but has been blamed for many of Metro's safety-related woes.

Recently, the federal government has increased its pressure on the jurisdictions to create the new safety oversight commission by having the Federal Transit Agency take over Metro safety oversight and threatening federal funding should the commission not be stood up by early 2017.

As state legislators that would have to vote on establishing the commission and funding it, we support meeting the federal requirement but would like to go even further in bringing real improved oversight to Metro by merging Metro's Inspector General (IG) into the commission.

The Federal government is rightfully concerned about Metrorail safety. Unfortunately, we know that Metro's issues go far beyond safety and include significant issues related to fiscal management, operations, communications, and more. We support creating the safety commission as required, but why just check that box for the feds when a relatively simple, structural move may succeed where other oversight efforts have failed?

Metro oversight is complicated by the multi-jurisdictional nature of the system: the Federal officials, Maryland, DC, and Virginia each have a role to play—and we have worked from our perch at Maryland's WMATA-Metro Work Group to improve oversight—but with so many players the buck stops with no one. In theory, Metro's Board is charged with oversight, but how is that working out?

The Metro IG was established in 2007 out of the old Auditor General's office. It was created by WMATA's Board and then passed into law by the jurisdictions as part of the WMATA compact. But it has never lived up to its potential and many of its recommendations, including those related to safety, have been left unheeded. Moving the IG from WMATA to the new commission will place more oversight power in the hands of the new independent agency and help the IG grow from its historical background as just an auditor.

Congress passed the federal IG Act in 1978 amid historically low public confidence in government. Since then, IGs have been watchdogs, annually saving billions in public funds and providing an $18 return on every dollar invested.

But Metro's IG is chained to an institutionally ineffective board, unable to harness its potential. Its limited powers are vague and subject to change by board resolution. And, its budget and resources are weak, especially its short-staffed investigatory arm.

Several factors prove critical to an effective IG, including independence, jurisdiction, investigatory and enforcement powers, and complainant incentives and protections. We have a lot of thoughts on how to shape the IG position under the commission in a way that positions it to do the best job possible with regard to each of these factors, and they boil down to allowing the IG to operate as it truly sees fit, having it oversee all of Metro, including the board, and giving it the ability to actually take action if it finds a problem.

We have heard a few criticisms of the proposal to move and empower the IG, all of which are unavailing.

First, we are told that the IG is responsible for supervising Metro's annual independent audit of financial reporting and is one of just three Metro employees that reports directly to the Board. But Metro has a Chief Financial Officer and Audits and Investigations Committee that can provide those functions and, if necessary, the IG could continue to do so as well from its new position. Moreover, the Board functions no better institutionally now than it did before it had an IG reporting to it.

Second, some observe that the safety commission will only have oversight of Metrorail, not the entire Metro enterprise. But so what? The Metro IG does not have regulatory power now. Reports unrelated to safety can still be transmitted to the Metro Board—and hopefully more robust reports will be acted upon in a more transparent and effective matter—but at least those related to safety will be implemented and enforced through the new power of the oversight commission.

Third, critics note that this does not solve every problem Metro has like the lack of a dedicated funding source or an insufficient quantity of track inspectors. Fair enough, but Metro is in a significant hole and no one reform is going to solve every issue.

Fourth, we have heard some fret that this threatens a federal mandate to establish a safety commission. But the federal government should embrace efforts by the jurisdictions not to just meet the bare minimum requirements but actually put forward a reform that could significantly improve Metro oversight and performance. Indeed, many elected officials in Maryland and Virginia do not appreciate Metro and this reform would be an important step in demonstrating that the region is getting serious about fixing Metro, not just careening from one crisis to the next.

We are both supporters and users of Metro. This proposal is not designed to make the work of the General Manager or Metro staff more difficult. Our vision is for a truly useful oversight agency. We are committed to doing the right thing for Metro, not the most expedient thing.

We must do something—both the federal government and the region demand it, so why not make it meaningful. For a better Metro, unleash the IG.


Metro is proposing the most limited hours of any large rail transit system in the US

At Thursday's WMATA board meeting, Metro leaders proposed making SafeTrack's cuts to late-night service permanent as well as deepening them even further, offering several proposals that would only have the system be open 127 hours per week. These proposals would turn a system that already had some of the most limited opening hours in the US into the least-available large rail transit system in the country.

Image by Craig on Flickr.

The table below compares Metrorail's hours and to those of the other nine largest rail transit systems in the US, by ridership. To get an idea of earlier evening frequency, I looked at the time between scheduled trains on the line that ran trains most often between the hours of 8 and 12 pm on Friday evening (the choice of Friday was arbitrary, but I wanted to compare nighttime frequency before the really late hours.)

Rail systemMinimum hours openMaximum hours openFriday evening frequency
New York City Subway168168every 5 minutes
Metro pre-Safetrack135135every 15 minutes
Metro Safetrack129129every 15 minutes
Metro proposed127127every 15 minutes
Chicago 'L'125168every 10 minutes
Boston MBTA Subway124135every 10 minutes
Bay Area Rapid Transit134134every 20 minutes
Philadelphia SEPTA147148every 10-12 minutes
NY/NJ PATH168168every 10 minutes
Atlanta MARTA139139every 20 minutes
Los Angeles Metro Rail136146every 20 minutes
Miami-Dade Metrorail133133every 15 minutes

In ridership terms, Metro ranks second in the nation, though way behind the New York City subway. It's closest to the Chicago 'L' in ridership.

Three of the ten largest systems run all (NYC subway and PATH) or some (Chicago) lines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Keep in mind that only one of these, the NYC subway, has extensive portions of four-tracked line that allow it to both run express tracks and perform maintenance on one set while using the other. Chicago has some portions of four-tracked lines where two lines run alongside each other, but the Red and Blue lines (which provide 24 hour service) use only two tracks each. Similarly, PATH does not have extensive stretches with more than two tracks.

Chicago, Boston and LA run more limited service on some lines. In Chicago's case, the spur Yellow line is open far less than the other lines. In systems, hours are generally uniform across lines.

Frequency is the other major characteristic of evening service compared here. I examine the time between scheduled trains on the line with the highest frequency between the hours of 8 and 12 PM on Friday evening. On this metric, Metro lags New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and PATH. Only BART, MARTA, and LA have worst nighttime frequencies, though two of these systems (BART and LA) rely on significant interlining to yield much better frequencies in the downtown core.

What do these other systems tell us?

First, and most obviously, the cuts Metro is proposing would give it more limited operating hours than any large US rail transit system.

Second, even before these cuts, many other systems were running for much longer hours while performing inspections and routine maintenance.

And finally, before and after the cuts, Metro would run trains in the early evening at lower frequency than many major systems. In addition to limited hours, limited frequencies make Metro a less dependable option for travel outside of peak hours.

Metro should learn from how these other systems perform inspections and routine maintenance without shutting down the entire system. Clearly, other systems have figured this out, but WMATA has not. Additionally, when major work is needed, Metro should adopt the approach of other major systems by shutting down lines for extended periods of time, as Chicago, New York City, and PATH have all done. These shutdowns are painful, but as we have seen with Safetrack, temporary reductions in service are much easier for riders to plan around than long-term low-quality service.

Area stakeholders need to decide if Metro should be one of the better rail transit operators in the country, or if it is acceptable as one of the worst. The proposed cuts in hours, along with already low frequencies in the early evening hours, would unquestionably resign Metro to being one of the worst systems for riders outside of peak hours.

Even before these cuts, other US systems have managed significantly longer service hours and much better off-peak frequency. Why can't WMATA adopt the strategies these systems have used to get maintenance work done?


Sorry, Metro. I’ve been seeing someone else.

I broke up with Metro last month.

Photo by Jeannette E. Spaghetti on Flickr.

I used to commute from Montgomery County to the Navy Yard area every day, typically by the Red and Green lines with a transfer at Fort Totten. SafeTrack work on my section of the Red Line sent me looking around for alternatives. Driving was never an option, so I landed on MARC's Brunswick Line plus Capital Bikeshare.

I realize I'm not comparing apples to apples and that every commuter's situation is very different. But I've found a more comfortable, less stressful, and less expensive way to get to work and back. So I decided to stick with it instead of going back to Metro after the surge is over. (Apparently, I'm not alone.)

The MARC Kensington station is a bit closer to my house by bike than Metro's Forest Glen station, which is where I used to start my commute. There's an easily legible electronic sign with train status and the current time, facing in both directions. The trains are clean, comfortable and quiet. They're nearly always on time. The conductors stop to answer questions. And I've always gotten a seat facing in the direction of travel, even though I get on just two stops before the end of the line. There's even an online lost and found service! The monthly pass is slightly cheaper than the daily Metro fare, even if I only use it four times a week.

I've added a touch of grandeur to the daily experience, arriving and departing Daniel Burnham's classic working monument to transportation, Union Station, and biking past the Capitol too. I'm also getting an extra four miles of exercise a day, which is a blessing even on the sweatiest of DC days.

I realize I'm having what amounts to a boutique travel experience. The Brunswick line draws only about 8,000 commuters on a typical weekday. That's every single train from every single station. On Metro, about that many people get on trains every day just at the Archives station. So one form of mass transit is definitely more "mass" than the other.

And not that the new commuting reality is a perfect one.

I had multiple equipment failures, bike shortages, and dock blocking on Bikeshare in just three weeks of daily commutes, and bought a new foldable bike as a result. I'm adjusting to the reality of a small number of trains that leave at fixed times, and how that affects when I come and go. The MARC train departs on a different track every day from Union Station, resulting in a large clump of people staring at a monitor and then bolting for the doors. I don't understand why this happens. Likewise, you can't count on using the same train doors to get off every day. And my bike ride home from the station is nearly all uphill. But these are little things, compared to the big things I started to notice after nearly a year of riding Metro every day.

My relationship with Metro began nearly three decades ago, and I was smitten.

I remember coming to DC as an 8th-grader and marveling at how clean, modern, and quiet the subway system was. It left an imprint on my young mind at least as great as any monument or museum we visited. Knowing nothing at the time about transit operations or the populations they served, I held Metro up as the standard for judging all others.

Nearly three decades later, having lived in and around DC since 2000, I was a daily commuter at several points in my career. I silently saluted the public-sector employees who keep the system running, unrecognized until something goes wrong. I read the excellent Great Society Subway history of Metro, now a decade old. I continued to thank my lucky stars every day to be off the roads, free to read or send email or even take a nap. But I'd also grown weary of the frequent service interruptions, unexplained delays and general lack of communication with customers.

There was the evening a year ago when a few dozen of my fellow passengers and I were literally held against our will by Metro. We arrived by train at Forest Glen only to find the elevators disabled because of a fire alarm. There are no escalators because of the station's depth. We stood in the mezzanine between platforms, hearing nothing from the lone Metro employee behind a nearby glass door. Every train after ours was bypassing the station.

That time when I couldn't use the Forest Glen elevators, nor the stairs... it wasn't one of the good ones. Photo by Dan Malouff.

A good 15 minutes later, I finally asked him if I could take the stairs and go home. (The emergency exit door was marked with a warning that a 20-story climb lay ahead, but I am a reasonably fit person who runs the occasional half marathon.) He told me no, but declined to explain why. There was nowhere we could go, no explanation about what was happening, no sense of when it would end.

Finally, another 10 minutes or so later, we were all shepherded onto a train in the other direction and told to get off at Silver Spring for a shuttle. Nobody seemed to know where the shuttle was when we got there. We found it, more than a block away, and got on a bus with a driver who seemed more annoyed than we were. We arrived at the front entrance to Forest Glen a good 45 minutes after we'd gotten off the train in the first place. No apologies, no explanations.

I lost track of the number of times I've sat or stood on a train for minutes on end, abruptly stopped in a tunnel with no cell phone service, with no idea why. Sometimes there was no explanation. Sometimes the PA system is inaudible. And sometimes it was the equally useless "train moving momentarily" announcement. Even the fantastic and comfortable new 7000-series cars have an automated announcement that there is a train on the next platform, and we'll be moving when the train clears. Why does this happen so often that we need a pre-programmed script for it?

When there were station announcements, they seemed geared toward people who work at Metro and speak the lingo, not ordinary customers. As a regular rider, transit buff, resident of the DC area and native English speaker, I still failed to understand how and why some messages went out. "We are currently experiencing residual delays in the direction of..." First of all, "currently" is nothing but a redundant word. Secondly, what is a residual delay anyway? Nobody cares if the train that's supposed to arrive at 5:03 is arriving at 5:07, if they can just get on the one before it instead. Is there going to be crowding? More time between trains? Then say it that way. With elevator outages, customers don't care that there's one set out of service for short-term repairs and another for long-term capital reconstruction. That's for the WMATA planners and budgeters to worry about. Customers just want to know that the elevator's out today and where to go instead. So why make two sets of announcements?

There were the overcrowded cars, hot cars, cars that were dark and empty because they were out of service. The trains that seemed to go missing. The lurching forward, stopping and starting multiple times on the way into multiple stations. Some trips took many, many minutes longer than others of the same distance, a variation that seemed to have nothing to do with how long we stopped at each station. It was all still orders of magnitude better than driving, but Metro was often a jarring, sweaty, unpredictable experience.

I do see signs of hope.

New general manager Paul Wiedefeld's decision to close the entire rail system for a day on short notice got the region's attention. WMATA's communication about SafeTrack has been effective, from ads in newspapers and free media outreach to the woman who stood outside my home station leafleting and announcing the next week's service reduction. The administration seems more open to conversations with the public and the press, which is a very good thing. It's a tough line to walk when you're trying to get support for improvements but also trying to convince people that you know what you're doing. I've been impressed so far.

I'm hoping instead of having a permanent breakup, Metro and I will still be able to see each other once in awhile. In fact, I took the Red Line to meet up with my wife in Dupont Circle after work just the other day. But I'll stick to MARC for my daily trips to the office and back, and will continue peddling away on my new folding bike for the first and last miles.


Metro is pushing ahead to cut late-night service with three unsatisfying options

We first heard about Metro's hope to permanently cut late-night service in July. Now, Metro has released three specific scenarios to cut late night service, but it offers still few specifics on why it's necessary or what alternatives there can be.

Photo by Howard Ignatius on Flickr.

At the regular WMATA Board of Directors meeting on Thursday, Metro staff will ask for formal approval to hold public hearings to cut late-night service. This is a legally required step before Metro can make any service cuts.

In July, we heard an initial proposal to end service at midnight Monday to Saturday and 10 pm on Sundays. Following public outcry, Metro has devised two other options, which staff estimate will harm about the same number of riders.

According to the presentation for Thursday's meeting, if the board approves public hearings, public comment would be open from October 1 to 24 with a public hearing on October 17. The board could vote to cut service in December, and the new hours would take effect next July.

The presentation also says Metro will take public input on ways to extend bus service to meet some late-night riders' needs, but offers no specifics.

Metro does need more maintenance, but is this necessary?

These closings will give Metro 8 to 8½ more hours a week when the system is closed, which will allow for more track work. It's certainly true Metro needs to catch up on track work, and single-tracking constrains workers too much so they can't get as much done.

Beyond the urgent safety-related fixes, Metro could use track time to fix lighting in stations (which requires closing the stations), installing cables for cell phone access in the tunnels, and much more, said General Manager Paul Wiedefeld when a few Greater Greater Washington contributors and I spoke with him recently.

However, what this proposal does not explain is why closing the entire system at once is necessary. Why not, for instance, pick one line per weekend to close at night? Heck, if they need more track time, it might even be fine to close a line for the entire weekend.

Surely the track workers can't be on every line at once.

Wiedefeld said he worries this would be too confusing for riders. Instead of knowing the system was closed, they would have to keep track of which lines are open. Plus, already low late night ridership would be even lower without the opportunity to transfer between as many lines.

I'm still not persuaded. Metro certainly could devise clear infographics to communicate, and if it made the closures really simple, such as one line (or a set of lines that overlap) per weekend, it could work.

We shouldn't armchair quarterback Wiedefeld's difficult job, but cutting late night service permanently will force a lot of people to give up on Metro and end the aspiration for it to offer a comprehensive alternative to driving. Many late night workers and entertainment patrons, especially those who live far from their jobs and destinations, will be stuck, as Tracy Loh explained this morning.

Riders should have more information before public comment and hearings

Maybe a one-line-at-a-time closure is worse for other reasons, but the board should ask about this and other options that don't give up on service entirely for parts of the day. They should ask for this before the proposal goes to public hearings.

The presentation also suggests adding late-night bus service, but has no specifics. I hope the planners are hard at work on devising the best ways to serve the most people without Metrorail. But it seems that riders will have to comment on the rail proposals without seeing what alternatives exist.

How about lengthening the temporary SafeTrack closure to give time to really figure out these alternatives before, not after, committing to permanently cut service? Because permanent is a big deal. Riders deserve to have all the details and a fully baked plan first.


When a train pass gets you rides on more than just trains, it's good for the region

Did you know that a weekly or monthly ticket for MARC commuter rail and certain types of tickets for VRE commuter rail, during the time when they are valid, are also good for unlimited rides on every many other transit systems in the DC and Baltimore region except for Metrorail? It's a well-kept secret, and an example of a partnership across agencies that should happen more often.

Photo by Ryan Stavely on Flickr.

MARC, or Maryland Area Rail Commuter, is a service of the Maryland Transit Administration that operates daily between DC's Union Station Baltimore Penn Station via New Carrollton throughout the day in both directions (the Penn Line), as well as rush-hour trains on weekdays between DC and Baltimore Camden Yards via Greenbelt (the Camden Line) and DC and Frederick, Maryland/Martinsburg, West Virginia via Montgomery County (the Brunswick Line).

Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is a service of two Northern Virginia regional transit commissions that runs weekday rush-hour trains, in the peak direction of travel, between DC's Union Station and Fredericksburg and Manassas/Broad Run.

You can buy single ride, weekly, and monthly MARC passes, all for a flat fee. That obviously gets you onto a MARC train, but if you show your ticket to the driver, you owe no additional fare on all many of greater Washington's bus services, including Metrobus and RideOn DC Circulator RideOn. Your MARC ticket is also an unlimited pass to all of Baltimore's transit system, including the subway, light rail, and buses. Simply show it to the station agent when entering the subway or to a fare inspector on light rail.

Similarly, a paper VRE ticket (single ride, weekly or monthly) is valid for rides on any bus service that connects with a VRE station (including Metrobus, ART, DASH, Fairfax Connector, FRED (Fredericksburg) and PRTC/OmniLink buses) at no additional fare. VRE riders can also purchase monthly Transit Link Cards, which are like SmarTrip cards, but are good for unlimited rides on both Metrorail and VRE during the month.

These features make MARC and VRE passes a great deal not only for those who travel regularly between DC and Baltimore, but also for commuters who come into DC from places like Rockville, Gaithersburg, Kensington, College Park, Greenbelt, New Carrollton, Alexandria, Crystal City, and Franconia/Springfield. MARC and VRE riders can use buses (and VRE riders with Transit Link Cards can use Metrorail) to cover the first or last mile at either end of their train trip as well as to get around on evenings and weekends, all for no additional cost.

Photo by JanetandPhil on Flickr.

There are precious few other examples of similar interagency cooperation in our region. One notable one is the interchangeability between DC's SmarTrip (administered by WMATA) and Baltimore's Charm Card (administered by the Maryland Transit Administration); either card works on all the greater DC jurisdictions' bus systems (including regional bus passes loaded onto a SmarTrip). However, you can't use a SmarTrip or Charm Card to pay commuter rail fare on MARC or VRE, except for Transit Link Cards (many other regions' contactless fare cards can be used on commuter rail as well as local transit), and you also must have separate form of payment to use Capital Bikeshare, commuter buses, taxis, etc.

Only recently has WMATA introduced a pass that works on both rail and bus (the SelectPass), but it still costs significantly more to add a bus pass to a rail pass and vice versa. WMATA could entice more riders to buy passes and not lose significant revenue by allowing monthly Metrorail passes to also include unlimited bus rides.

VRE should offer its weekly and monthly ticket holders the same connectivity benefits as MARC does—at least for Metrobus and northern Virginia local buses, if not also for Maryland buses. MTA, Loudoun County Transit, PRTC, and other commuter bus riders could also give their monthly pass holders the same benefits as MARC and VRE.

Eventually, there should be one card that pays fare on all the DC-Baltimore region's public conveyances—Metro, local bus, commuter bus, commuter rail, ferries, taxis, bikeshare, and special buses like Washington Flyer and the YTS New Carrollton-Annapolis bus—to which weekly and monthly passes could be added that could include all these modes, either at no additional charge or at a discount, or as many of them as the user wishes to add.

The simpler it is to determine and pay the fare on transit, and the more people feel like they are getting a good deal by "buying in bulk," the more people will be attracted to use all of these forms of travel and to think of and experience them as one interconnected system. MTA and VRE obviously overcame the hurdle of administrative siloing when it made deals with WMATA and other agencies for MARC and VRE pass holders. There's no reason other agencies can't do the same.

Correction: This article originally said that MARC passes work for the DC Circulator, and omitted facts about VRE tickets working on other transit systems. It has been updated to for accuracy.


Should Metro change its rules to allow bikes during rush hour?

Today, Metro does not allow standard bikes on its trains during rush hour. But one of the ideas that came through MetroGreater was to reverse that policy and allow bikes at all times of day. Some of our contributors (as well as some well-known members of the local media...) think it's a good idea, while others don't.

Photo by anokarina on Flickr.

According to WMATA spokesman Richard Jordan, Metro doesn't allow bikes on trains during weekday morning and afternoon rush (defined as the hours between 7-10 am and 4-7 pm) "for the safety of all riders... allowing for unobstructed entries on and exits off the train." He also added that "bicycles are not allowed inside railcars on July 4th or Inauguration Day."

David Cranor thinks the arguments for the ban don't hold much water:

There's no evidence that taking bikes on Metro is dangerous. The argument about space is valid but a folding bike doesn't really take up that much less space than a full-size bike, and how often are passengers really left on the platform because they can't get anyone else on?

[Also,] there is excess capacity in the reverse direction, why not monetize that and create better service at the same time? I've always done a reverse commute and when I used a folding bike it felt silly taking it on an empty train.

There is already a rule against bikes on crowded trains and platforms outside of rush hour, and definitely times when trains are crowded outside of rush hour. Is there any evidence that the system isn't working at those times?

Chris Slatt agrees:
There are clear mobility benefits to allowing bikes on MetroRail all the time, and as Metro has been pointing out - ridership is down, so there must be some "excess" capacity that could be used by people with their bikes. At a time when MetroRail is hurting for money and ridership, we shouldn't be turning people away without a clear and compelling reason to do so. I really think this is one of those problems that doesn't require a regulatory solution. People will naturally balance their need to take their bike on Metro vs. social pressure against doing so in a crowded direction at a crowded time. In general, people don't want to be "that idiot" who is getting in everyone else's way. Will it happen sometimes? Yes. Frequently enough to be more of a problem than tourists in general? I doubt it.
Jacob Mason says they are able to figure this out in New York:
The NYC subway does not ban bikes at any time, and there is certainly greater crowding there than in DC. It is often not physically possible to bring a bike on board a packed train, and you risk a LOT of people being very angry at you if you try. Same goes for strollers and any other large piece of equipment. There are some lines and some directions that are lightly used during rush hour, and this policy allows people to use bikes for these trips.
But Graham Jenkins, a MetroGreater jury member can see why it'd be hard to safely allow bikes on the Metro during rush hour:
It's impossible for personnel to tell whether a cyclist entering a station intends to ride in an off-peak direction.
1. Regardless of which direction the cyclist intends to travel, it's still difficult to maneuver with/around a bike during peak hours in almost any station (and if it's not bad at the origin, what about the destination?).
2. Even if under normal circumstances there is technically room for bikes, if anything goes wrong and results in crush loading, so much the worse.
3.Travel through the core is typically crowded in either direction, particularly during peak hours, leaving no room for bicycles on trains or in stations.
Lessie Henderson, another jury member, agrees with Graham that "if a dedicated car isn't available, then the bikes could get in the way; especially with rush and other events combined." She thinks a reasonable alternative would be to "encourage use of the bike lockers at the stations," maybe even connecting the bike lockers to a discounted Metro fare.

And when this conversation first came up, WAMU transportation reporter and Metropocalypse host Martin DiCaro is pretty against the idea:

So did NBC transportation reporter Adam Tuss and WMATA Board Member Corbett Price, as well as WAMU reporter and Metropocalypse host Martin Di Caro.

Tom Sherwood, another media icon in our region, is a fan:

Kelli Raboy points out that there are compelling reasons people want to bring bikes on:

It's not so much about the merits of the proposal (I don't really have an opinion on that), but more about the perception of WHY people would want to bring bikes on Metro during rush hour. It seems like all the arguments against this are entrenched in the idea that people who want to bring bikes on Metro want to do it out of convenience, or for a "fun" alternative. In reality, people will opt to navigate busy platforms and trains with a bike if it's their only reasonable option.
Alex Baca looks to California to give us some guidance:
BART in San Francisco has designated areas for bikes. BART is slammed regularly and people move around the bikes, which can really only be stacked about five deep before they seriously block the aisle between the seats. It's super-annoying as a rider without a bike and as a rider with a bike to navigate this, but it's far less annoying than not being able to bring your bike on the train for a few hours. Keep in mind that it is not possible to bike across the Bay Bridge, so putting your bike on BART (or an AC Transit bus) is the only way to get it between San Francisco and Oakland.
Svet Neov thinks even without a ban, there should probably be some restrictions:
Does it make sense for Metro to ban bikes at particular times of the day or in particular stations? Yes, it probably does.

It's just a matter of bicyclists not boarding a crowded train. Trains become crowded at some point during their journey. So a cyclist bound for, say, Woodley Park, may board a perfectly empty train at Forest Glen, and then suddenly find himself unable to get out of the way when a horde of passengers board at Union Station or when the train becomes even more crowded at Gallery Place.

On the other hand, does it make sense for Metro to completely ban bikes? Probably not.

If someone is reverse commuting on a Red Line train outbound towards Grosvenor in the morning, chances are there's plenty of room on the train. A similar situation could occur on any line in the middle of the day when ridership is low.

So, some trains may be perfectly able to accept bikes. Especially those that are outside of the core and headed away from it.

Before BART relaxed its ban on bicycles, they actually noted in the schedule (and on the digital signs on station platforms) specific trains that bikes were allowed on. And that works much better than a blanket ban based on time.

For example, let's imagine a Green Line train that is scheduled to depart Greenbelt at 9:58 am. Since the bike ban goes until 10:00 am, bicyclists are not allowed to be on that train. However, when that same train arrives at College Park at 10:03 am, where it becomes more crowded, bicycles are allowed. What is the point of banning cyclists from that train between Greenbelt and College Park? There is none and the goal of the ban becomes obsolete.

What do you think? Should the ban go or should Metro keep it?


40 Maryland leaders speak against cuts to late-night Metro

Forty elected officials, primarily from Montgomery County, sent a letter criticizing Metro's proposal to permanently end late-night service. But a few officials are conspicuously missing, like County Executive Ike Leggett and County Council transportation committee chair Roger Berliner.

Late night transit service? Not for everyone. Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

During SafeTrack, Metro has suspended service after midnight. In July, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld announced that he would propose a permanent closing time of midnight Fridays and Saturdays and 10 pm on Sundays. He said this is necessary to free up more track time for maintenance on an ongoing basis. Right now, this is still just a proposal before the WMATA Board.

In the letter, these 40 leaders state for the record that they are "extremely concerned about the long-term effect of ... service changes."

Why the region needs late-night Metro

Just as many commuters use the system during rush hour, many shift workers—like Michelle Douglas, found by Washingtonian on a Green Line platform at 2 am—are dependent on Metrorail to catch a safe ride home at the end of their day's work. The letter also points out that nightlife venues in DC are open later than neighboring jurisdictions, and "a reduction in hours may lead some to make less responsible choices."

Jurisdictions in the region have increasingly invested in transit-oriented development to expand accessibility in our region through long-distance, intra-state rail service. Decades of planning and economic development effort have been tied irrevocably in the system, and the letter argues that "for these transit-oriented developments to reach their potential, the transit in TOD cannot just be a commuter system to get workers to and from office buildings for 9-5 jobs, but a 'lifestyle system' that allows for reliable transportation for recreation and non-traditional work hours."

The letter further warns of a potential "death spiral" on the land use side of the equation if WMATA makes its service decision in a silo, because "we cannot expect people to fill the mixed use developments around Metro if it is no more convenient than living in other, less costly communities." Long term, there are inevitable implications for Metrorail ridership as well.

Photo by Simplificamos Su Trabajo on Flickr.

No, Uber and Lyft are not an alternative for all

The cost of adapting to a world with no late-night Metrorail service is not distributed equally—far from it. Those who are harmed most can least afford to cope. The letter devotes its longest paragraph to debunking the idea that ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft can pick up the slack, as Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner (whose district includes the Bethesda Metro station) asserted in July.

"The people that are going to Peter Chang's are, in my judgment, people who can probably afford an Uber ride," said Berliner, while acknowledging the negative impact for late-night workers. Berliner argued these impacts are outweighed by "concerns about the economic impacts of a system not operating as it must."

It should come as no surprise, then, that Berliner is not a signatory to the letter. Neither are county councilmembers Sidney Katz, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, or Craig Rice, though all were offered the opportunity to sign on. County Executive Ike Leggett also declined.

Reached for comment, Floreen echoed Berliner's concerns about the overwhelming need to prioritize maintenance, even after SafeTrack, over any other concern. More fundamentally, CM Floreen said that she "trusts WMATA to make decisions" after crunching the data to provide the best service possible within constraints, such as maintenance.

There are two issues at play. The first is whether there is truly no other way for WMATA to maintain the system but to end late-night service. We have questioned many common assumptions about Metrorail maintenance, and the Federal Transit Administration's assessment of WMATA's maintenance practices was, to say the least, not a basis to inspire confidence. Why do regional leaders like Berliner and Floreen accept this status quo as a foundation for service provision?

The second issue is how inequitable impacts are weighed in a decision-making process. Do we understand the impact of the end of late-night service on suburban TODs and late-night workers in economic terms? And how are those impacts weighed against other constraints on the system?

Berliner sees them as "equal." I see a dystopian vision of the future for the region to assert that only those who can afford car service should be able to travel outside of peak hours. We need to take the time to have these conversations before any final decision is made about late-night service. While not a signatory to the letter, Floreen emphasized that "we need to evaluate fundamental assumptions."

The future of regional transit hinges on whether our leadership can unite and advocate for a robust system. We've argued that late-night service is a part of this, and over 2,800 readers agreed strongly enough to take action through Greater Greater Washington to say so directly to their WMATA board representatives.

But until our leaders listen, and then speak with one voice, the state legislatures and governors that hold the keys to dedicated funding for Metro do not have to. The current funding is simply an accurate reflection of ambivalence from our own leaders about whether we really, actually, even need Metro all that much.

A note about comment from Prince George's County officials: Outreach for the letter was limited to the state delegation—as a municipal elected official in the county, I have personally undertaken to organize a followup letter with outreach to our county executive, county council, and municipal officials.


These Metro stations’ names might have been very different

Metro's Medical Center station was almost called "Pooks Hill," and Navy Yard could have been "Weapons Plant." This 1967 map shows some of the amusing names that WMATA considered for a number of Metro stations.

Map from WMATA.

Aside from Medical Center and Navy Yard having different names, you'll notice that Pentagon City is named Virginia Highlands and Federal Center SW is named Voice of America.

The names are crisper and more creative than the awkward over-hyphenization that is so common in today's system. Originally operating under a 15 character limit, Woodley Park - Zoo / Adams Morgan is shown more elegantly as Zoological Park (you can see where this one appears on the little map in the top left below), and Gallery Place - Chinatown is named Fine Arts (because of the Portrait Gallery).

Map from WMATA.

In 2010, Matt Johnson wrote about "namesprawl," the "result of the idea that station names have to reflect absolutely everything remotely close by. This is generally done to encourage people to ride transit to these venues."

This map was included in a pamphlet that outlined the congressionally approved "basic system." It's surprising to think that a name like Weapons Plant made it through the committee process unscathed.

It's also amusing to see the proposal's high minded promise that "SERVICE WILL BE FREQUENT: Air conditioned trains will run every two minutes at peak hours."

An expanded version of this article appears on the Architect of the Capital blog.


Metro won’t open early for DC's biggest race of the year

Big marathons lean heavily on transit, whether it's local rail systems or networks of shuttle buses, to get thousands of participants to their start lines. However, due to SafeTrack, Metro will not be an option for the more than 30,000 runners in the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) and its associated races this October for the first time in years.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Metro has historically opened two hours early, at 5:00 am, for the race. This allows runners to get to the start line near Arlington Cemetery from all points in the system well ahead of the 7:55 am start.

On average, 24,000 runners use Metro to get the race, according to the MCM's organizers.

This year, however, Metro will open at its usual Sunday time of 7:00 am on race day, October 30th. This is not early enough for most runners to take Metro to what was the fourth largest marathon in the USA in 2015.

Instead, the organizers will offer parking in Crystal City and Pentagon City with runner-only shuttle buses to the starting line. Runners will also be able to begin the race for up to an hour after the 7:55 am start. Arlington Transit will run extra buses for runners as well.

The race has also changed its course slightly, adding sections in Arlington and shortening ones in DC. This was necessary because some road closures had been planned far in advance and the times couldn't be shifted; this is also why the organizers can't just delay the start.

Metro says no exceptions

WMATA announced a blanket one-year moratorium on early openings and late closings as part of its SafeTrack plan this May. The moratorium has stood since then for any event, from concerts to Nationals games and now the MCM.

Metro has not wavered on the moratorium, even under pressure from local pols including DC mayor Muriel Bowser.

To date, WMATA has only considered adding to the time it needs for maintenance work, seeking board approval in July to make a "temporary" suspension of late night service permanent.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Opinions are mixed on Metro's decision

The majority of participants in large marathons take transit to start lines, with races all over the world encouraging runners to rides trains or buses. The benefit of existing transit networks is just that: the network. With one in place, race organizers do not need to create a network of shuttle buses that can collect runners from the various corners of a metro area.

While Metro does need to accomplish the SafeTrack repairs and the reduce its backlog of deferred maintenance, not opening early for the MCM, when the vast majority of runners ride the train, is far more detrimental to them than not staying open late for, say, a Nationals game, when on average only 11,000 attendees ride Metro.

Metro could be more transparent about what it needs to accomplish when it refuses to adjust its hours slightly for large events. In the case of the MCM, what work will be done during those two hours that cannot be done another time? Knowing this would help people understand if Metro really needs the time or just wants to stick to one standard for simplicity's sake.

Elizabeth Whitton feels Metro isn't being unreasonable:

"I've organized large scale athletic events in the past and take an opposite view of the issue. For these large scale events (across the country, not just DC), the usual protocol is for the event organizers to request additional public services (transit, port-a-potties, police, etc) and then work out agreements with the necessary government entities. Most local governments charge fees in exchange for additional services.

I read this news as: Metro does not feel it is mutually beneficial to provide additional rail service to the MCM start due to its on-going Safetrack program.

Realistically, the marathon could change its start time. Lots of reasons why this is not practical, though. For one, the race has a permit to use the 14th Street Bridge for a specific time of day. The logistics of changing this permit would be a nightmare.

Bottom line: Metro should not receive a lot of the blame for this. It is the responsibility of the race organizers to ensure participants can access the start line."

Metro certainly is not entirely to blame in this situation. The MCM organizers have already made some lousy decisions for this year's race, for example, moving the pre-race expo, where the majority of participants go to pick up their bibs and race packets, to the transit-desert of National Harbor from the transit-rich Washington Convention Center.

Gray Kimbrough thinks that some intermediate threshold is warranted.

"I understand that Metro can't open early or stay open late for every event. They absolutely need to have set thresholds so that it's not up in the air.

It seems like now is as good a time as any to come up with reasonable thresholds. Or is Metro's stand really going to be that SafeTrack can never be delayed or altered for any events? Will they continue to close down lines through the Cherry Blossom Festival, for example? Are they not going to alter anything for the next inauguration either?"

Canaan Merchant thinks the situation presents some opportunities for Metro to consider:
"Metro could charge more money to organizations who want to hold an early or late event. Or Metro could see if the work that they're planning on even affects downtown areas; if not, then the system could maybe open in some parts and not the others.

In general, as much as Metro needs to get its maintenance straight, they need to think long and hard about turning away easy ridership boosts like this one as well."

What do you think?


How much could you save with a Metro SelectPass? Use our updated calculator to find out!

WMATA has expanded its new monthly pass program, SelectPass. Now, you can buy a pass for nine different levels of fares based on your travel patterns. What's right for you? We've created a calculator.

Photo by Ken Teegardin on Flickr.

SelectPass gives you a monthly pass for the cost of 18 round trips (36 one-ways) at a price you select. You pick a pass at the level of your regular one-way rush-hour fare; any extra trips of the same or lesser value are free, and more expensive ones just cost the difference between that fare and the single-trip fare.

The cost of the monthly SelectPass, therefore, is 36 times the cost of the fare threshold you choose, ranging from $81 for a $2.25 SelectPass to $212.40 for a $5.90 SelectPass. It's available for every 25¢ increment from $2.25 to $4.00, and also at the maximum fare of $5.90. Is it a good deal for you?

To find out what your savings could be, use the calculator below, which Greater Greater Washington contributor Chris Slatt developed and I adapted and expanded.

We've filled it in with an example representing someone who commutes 20 days a month at rush hour between East Falls Church and Farragut West (40 trips at $3.30 each), and does a round trip in the afternoon between Farragut West and Capitol South once a week (eight trips at $1.75 each). If you don't know how much your trips cost, go to the Metrorail stations page and click on the station where you're starting your trip.

WMATA SelectPass Savings Calculator

In a typical month, how many one-way trips do you take and how much do they cost?

Trips per Month Fare per Trip

Monthly Fares Paid and Savings

Normal Fare: $
Pass level Pass cost Extra fare Total Savings
$2.25 $81.00 $ $
$2.50 $90.00 $ $
$2.75 $99.00 $ $
$3.00 $108.00 $ $
$3.25 $117.00 $ $
$3.50 $126.00 $ $
$3.75 $135.00 $ $
$4.00 $144.00 $ $
$5.90 $212.40 $ $

In the graph above, the green bar shows the pass that is the best deal for you. Blue bars show passes that will also save you money, while those with gray bars will not.

How much would you save with a pass?

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City