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Posts about Communication


What did two weeks of SafeTrack get us? Metro hasn't said.

The second phase of SafeTrack wrapped up on July 3rd. I wanted to write about the work Metro did, but the agency has published next to nothing about the project's status—the only video it has made available is marked as 'unlisted' on YouTube. Metro is slipping on its duty of keeping customers informed.

One of General Manager Paul Wiedefeld's stated goals when he came on board was to make Metro more customer-focused. This includes communicating the day-to-day operations of the buses and trains, especially when there are major disruptions, like closing the tracks between the Benning Road Minnesota Avenue stations to Eastern Market, along with those between Rosslyn and Arlington National Cemetery, between June 18th and July 3rd.

Through the 16-day closure, the entirety of Metro communications of the progress of Surge 2 has been a one minute, 26-second, un-narrated video of B-roll with imagery of the track, workers performing a couple tasks, and some track machines moving equipment.

So what has happened? Here's my best guess

A few comments from both Mr. Wiedefeld and others within Metro will allow us to work backward to figure out what has happened during Surge 2. While there's been nothing definitively stated so far, we can try to speculate and discuss what may have been going on, as seen in the video Metro released.

The area that crews are working in is between Potomac Avenue station, which starts underground and continues above-ground to the aerial tracks east of Stadium-Armory, which split off toward Minnesota Avenue on the Orange line and Benning Road on the Blue/Silver Lines.

At Thursday's WUSA9 Mission: Metro town hall event, Wiedefeld mentioned two cement mixers on-site making and pouring material as part of the track overhaul. The brief video shows workers putting pieces of wood in place outlining where grout pads, made from cement and which the rail and fasteners lie on top of, will be re-made. These pads lay on top of slabs of cement, which then ultimately are supported by the pillars of the aerial structure.

In addition, the video shows prime movers moving parts of switches—there are eight in this aerial section that make up the interlocking (a set of track switches) and allow trains to move from one track to another—into place. We know at least three of these switches had been replaced by June 28th. The rail that makes up the switches and the track in between them is secured to the afore-mentioned grout pads through a series of fasteners, which are also missing from parts of the track shown in the video.

Essentially, it appears that WMATA ripped out and replaced just about all of the rail infrastructure at the Orange and Blue/Silver line split (otherwise known as the "D&G interlocking"), and replaced it piece by piece.

Once the grout pads, fasteners, and switches were replaced, the track crews would presumably also have to repair or replace the signaling, power, and other electronic equipment in the area as well. How much work they did or didn't do, and how old or in what shape the equipment that was there before, remains a mystery.

Passengers want and need to know what's happening

Digestible, transparent, and frequent information is required for a major project like SafeTrack. A PDF at the end of each section boiling down two weeks of work into a single slide barely cuts it, and doesn't provide the passengers using the system day in and day out with enough information to know that the proper work is being done well enough to sustain the system for years to come.

It's critical going forward for Metro to regain the trust of riders who have shifted away from riding the rails to driving, carsharing, or biking, and get them back onto the system. That's important not only to help Metro survive, but also to hopefully allow it to grow for years to come. Metrorail is critical to the DC area economy, but the system can't succeed without its riders.

Metro knows how to do this right. One of the videos from the 2011 Metro Forward campaign shows a longer version of what goes into replacing an interlocking. The two-minute switch replacement timelapse shows the overnight and weekend work that went into laying down the switches necessary for the Silver Line to connect up to the Orange Line between West and East Falls Church (the "K&N Junction"), which included laying the ballast that the switches and ties lay on, and the electrical and signaling work required to integrate the switches into the Metro rail system.

Although it's not narrated, the long view of the same location for the entire video lets you see all of what goes into a switch replacement—and with eight switches through the D&G, a video like that helps indicate the level of work needed. However, the inclusion of narration like several other Metro videos used to be can vastly help people understand what's going on in the work area and what the videos are showing them.

Tl;dr: More honest, detailed, and factual information please, Metro.


Public agencies must communicate to succeed

Gabe Klein, former transportation chief in DC and later Chicago, has just published a book, Start-Up City. We're pleased to present a few excerpts. In this one, Gabe talks about how an agency must communicate well with the public if it's to be successful.

Communication image from Shutterstock.

Why should the private sector have a monopoly on high-quality marketing? On next-generation customer engagement? On technology-enabled products and services? [When I started at DDOT], communications to stakeholders were generally fair to middling in quality and consistency, we weren't very proactive, we needed to listen more, and some of our services had grown stale, if consistent.

[I worked] to communicate with the public effectively while empowering our great communications and public relations staff to open up the black box that had been instinctively created. Their first reaction was always shock. Really? We can talk about all of this stuff the agency does?

In DC, people were not used to someone aggressively selling the program as much as I was, but the reaction was very positive internally within the government and externally with the business community and the public at large. The public appreciated our efforts and the ability to know our reasoning behind the projects we were undertaking, and there was a lot pride within the agency that we were being recognized.

In fact, Karyn LeBlanc and John Lisle, who ran our communication and marketing efforts, were frequently asked to speak around the country about best practices in government communication. Our embrace of social media was one of the first in the country at that scale. From Twitter to Flickr to Scribd to our own blog and live chats with the public, the black box opened up and the public had the access they wanted and deserved.

Chicago grapples with a culture of not communicating

In Chicago, meanwhile, there was far more confusion and skepticism within the government about our overhaul of the communications program. The culture of the political machine had taken a heavy toll on the city and its staff. The month before I arrived, Mayor Daley's commissioner of streets and sanitation was indicted. People casually joked that the next most likely position after someone was an alderman was cellmate.

Although I thought this was funny, it was also tragic, and dozens, if not hundreds, of Chicago and Illinois government workers had gone to jail over the past twenty years. To say the public lacked trust in the government is an understatement, and the honest people working in government were understandably shell-shocked from the constant scandal playing out in the papers and the courts.

Rahm Emanuel was coming in on the heels of twenty-two years of Mayor Richard M. Daley and forty-three years of Daley family control in total. Tumult, nervousness, and excitement ran amongst many government employees eager to turn to a new chapter, but many were also scared to find themselves on the cusp of a new era with unknown changes to come.

Against this backdrop, in May 2011, I immediately adopted an open-door policy with the press and not only returned their calls without a great deal of oversight, but aggressively worked to sell the Emanuel administration's new vision for CDOT and beyond. The mayor and I articulated our goal of moving people within the context of creating jobs, healthier citizens, and a more robust economy—messages aligned with the mayor's mission.

The public responded positively to it. Why? Because it was all true and was tied back to our stated goals. With few exceptions, we also received positive reaction from the rest of our key stakeholders, who had been long awaiting this change.

I had my battles with city hall to keep talking proactively to the press. The culture under Daley had been to avoid having your name in the paper if you could. We kept pushing, though, and rebranded the agency, rebooted our website, started social media accounts, and created a Complete Streets initiativean effort to ensure that users of all modes of city transportation can travel safely and comfortably—over which we had full control.

This excerpt has been edited for length. You can purchase Start-Up City from Amazon. See Gabe Klein speak and sign books on November 4 at the National Building Museum at 12:30, that night at BicycleSpace in Adams Morgan at 7:30, or at Upshur Street Books on November 24th at 7 pm.


How two families dealt with Metro problems and other transportation options in the snow

There was track work on the Red Line last weekend, and as it turned out, a smoke incident as well. Both Mitch Wander and David Alpert were riding the Red Line, and the experiences yielded plenty of examples of the bad and the good of Metro and other transportation choices.

A family (not Mitch's or David's) in the snow. Photo by Amber Wilkie on Flickr.

Mitch says, "My son and I considered car2go or Uber for an early morning trip from Glover Park to Catholic University. Uber had surge pricing in effect, likely because there were few cars on the road, but there were two nearby cars2go. We walked to the first only to find it parked on a patch of ice and on a hill. But the second one fit the bill."

Meanwhile, David and his daughter were going to Tenleytown. He says, "We've mostly given up on using Metro on weekends when there's track work (and often, sadly, even when there's not). But we didn't want to drive back in a major snowstorm, so we tried the Red Line even though the Metro website said service was only running every 20 minutes.

"We just missed a train to Shady Grove by a few seconds, but fortunately, though the website didn't mention this, there were some extra trains just from Dupont to Shady Grove (and from Judiciary Square to Glenmont), one of which pulled in shortly after."

The snowstorm begins

By the time both families were coming back, the snow was coming down heavily.

There were nearly two inches of snow on the ground when Mitch and his son left Catholic University just before noon. He says, "I overruled my son's suggestion to use car2go again. Instead, we decided to take Metro to Tenleytown and either take Metrobus or get a ride from my wife home.

"We walked to the Brookland-CUA Metro station. The first train arrived but the conductor announced that the train would go out of service at Judiciary Square without explaining why. We waited for the next train which continued downtown.

"At Dupont Circle, the train stopped with doors open for several minutes. There were still no announcements, but Twitter showed photos of smoke at the Woodley Park station."

"My son and I left, as did a few other passengers I informed about the problem. People by the bus stop said that the D2 had not been running for 45 minutes, so after trying to walk a few blocks, we decided to use Uber despite the 1.7x surge pricing. A car arrived within 10 minutes."

Another Metro delay compounds problems

David and his daughter left a little later, at 12:30. It was difficult to even push a stroller two blocks up a small hill to the Metro along sidewalks with fresh snow. This was not a time to be driving.

"Another 'special' train pulled in right as they got to the platform, which I knew wouldn't go through downtown, but he initially assumed it would reach Dupont before turning. However, it instead went out of service at Woodley Park. The conductor also did not explain why; I guessed that perhaps the train was going to wait in the pocket track before going to Dupont, though it also could have related to the smoke which I didn't yet know about.

"The conductor announced that another train was 20 minutes behind, and the signs confirmed this. This seemed odd since the wait between through trains was supposed to be 20 minutes, and the special was surely in between. Nonetheless, we settled in for a wait. Since mobile phone service works in Woodley Park, they were able to play music and watch videos.

"However, 20 minutes later, there was no train,though multiple trains had passed outbound. The top 'Glenmont' line on the digital displays showed a blank space instead of a time estimate. Eventually, the station manager announced that there was a disabled train at Friendship Heights.

Photo by David Alpert.

"I considered bailing on Metro, but my daughter is too small to ride in a car2go or an Uber without a carseat. There were no Uber vehicles with carseats available at all, according to the app, even at a surge rate.

"The platform had grown quite crowded at this point. Fortunately, Metro sent an empty special train in the opposite direction to pick up waiting passengers (even though, as Twitter showed, having a train pass by without picking them up annoyed some people waiting at Dupont Circle).

"An employee arrived on the platform and told people that a train would come within 15 minutes. And it did. The total trip ended up taking about an hour."

What can we learn from this story? There are a few conclusions we can draw:

Travelers have so many options, which is terrific. Mitch and his son used three modes of transportation (car2go, Metroail, and Uber) and considered two others (Metrobus and private car). He says, "I think my son takes for granted that we can seamlessly jump from one transportation option to another." If one mode is struggling, as Metrorail did, many people can opt to switch.

Modern technology is extremely helpful to compare options. It wouldn't have been possible to find out about the smoke so quickly or evaluate as many choices without today's smartphones, apps, and social media. We didn't have these options or this timely, decentralized information even just a few years ago, and it's transformed mobility.

Metro still can do far, far more to communicate about outages. Neither Mitch nor David knew about the short-turning special trains before riding one, and the website didn't talk about them. Some train announcements are hard to understand because of bad equipment and/or train operators who mumble through their explanations.

The following day, David and his daughter rode the Metro again, and when arriving at Dupont on a special train which was turning around, he overheard a rider saying, "I don't understand how this system works." People get confused and frustrated during planned or unplanned disruptions. Communication wouldn't stop all frustration, but could stop the confusion and reduce anger.

We're still lucky to have Metro even despite all its problems (which are many). Even though it took an hour to get from Tenleytown to Dupont Circle, that was better than trying to drive. Buses were not running. Walking was out of the question. Underground trains had a lot of problems, but they still worked. Maybe that's not much to be happy about, but people in most cities and even most parts of our region don't even have that.


Communication problems leave residents in the cold amid bus and electricity failures

Every snowfall brings its inconveniences and problems. Most of us depend on critical infrastructure that can't keep running for everyone in bad weather. But communication problems compounded some already-frustrating service disruptions for Metrobus riders and Pepco electric customers yesterday.

Photo by Dustin Renwick on Twitter.

Cold residents can't get the bus in Glover Park

In Glover Park, the neighborhood streets pose a challenge when snow falls, because the streets are hilly and narrow. Side streets often take time to get plowed and become impassable to buses and cars.

The D2 bus, which runs through Glover Park, stopped venturing into the neighborhood during the day. By late afternoon, WMATA officials told Glover Park residents that the bus was running on a snow detour. But the information coming from the agency didn't match what drivers were actually doing.

Instead of taking the planned snow detour, buses were stopping their routes at 35th Street and Whitehaven Parkway.

Ann Chisholm, Government Relations Officer for WMATA, told Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Jackie Blumenthal that drivers do not decide where to go; instead, they follow the prescribed route. On Twitter, @MetroBusInfo communicated the same detour. But the bus drivers found ice on 39th Street and told one another to turn back at 35th.

The D2 snow detour map. Image from WMATA.

It is understandable that there are times when bus routes are blocked, but when the actual routes don't match the information available, it leads residents to wait outside in the cold and snow for a bus that will never come.

Last year, after a very minor snowfall, buses stopped running on some major routes including Wisconsin Avenue. Crowds of riders lined up at the corner of Wisconsin and Calvert St. with no hope of getting on a bus. These types of stories are a constant for riders throughout the region.

Cold, power-free residents don't know when they'll have heat again

Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and U Street usually don't suffer from power outages because their lines are underground, but something happened at 18th and New Hampshire yesterday at 6:45 am, which resulted in smoke coming out of manhole covers and no power all the way to 13th and U or beyond.

These things happen, and Pepco quickly dispatched crews to the scene. However, the utility gave constantly-shifting time estimates for a fix: 11:00 am, 2:00 pm, 5:00, 7:00, 10:00, and finally 11:30. The power came back at 11:15 pm for all but a few blocks.

During the evening, many residents were tweeting with great apprehension about whether they would have enough heat to make it through the bitterly cold winter night.

DC operated a warming center at Raymond Recreation Center, near Petworth Metro. But as several pointed out on Twitter, that's over two miles from much of the affected area. This area has a lot of car-free households, and transit doesn't operate all night.

Pepco's official statement said, "Pepco recommends that customers monitor the estimated time of restoration and make their own decision whether to vacate their home based on their individual needs and circumstances." But monitoring the estimated time wasn't helpful when it had become fairly clear earlier in the day that the estimated time meant little.

Local resident Noah Bopp wrote in an email, "My family has options, but I think about older neighbors who may have depended on Pepco's predictions and then were effectively trapped in freezing weather with no real means to get out. Anyone walking down [our] street last night knows how pitch-black-icy-treacherous it was. Expecting an aging resident to walk through that to hail a cab on Connecticut to go to the warming center is just crazy."

There's still scant information about what exactly happened in that manhole yesterday. But things do happen, and these neighborhoods are lucky not to have had many other power outages. Better estimates and fuller communication could have enabled everyone to make sound judgments and alternate plans. Without it, people are left cold, scared, and confused.


The H Street streetcar will take even longer to open than many thought. It's past time for DDOT to be more honest

There's more bad news for DC streetcars: The latest estimates show the H Street line may not open until early 2015. This isn't an additional delay, but rather seems to be simply a more genuine timeline of how long the remaining work will take. That's a step forward. Unfortunately, DDOT is still not being fully forthright about what's going on.

DC streetcars at the Anacostia testing & commissioning site. Photo by Dan Malouff.

What's left to do, and how long it will take

The streetcar team sent a construction update yesterday. It said that crews would move the streetcars currently on H Street back to the Anacostia testing and commissioning site for 6 weeks of vehicle maintenance and equipment installation. That was enough for Aaron Wiener at the City Paper to start digging for more details.

Here's a breakdown of what he found out.

First, the maintenance and equipment phase beginning today will last 6 weeks. Six weeks from yesterday is July 16.

Following that, DDOT will conduct final system integration tests. DDOT hasn't said how long that will take. Since we don't have a timeline, let's come back to this later.

Next, DDOT will train its day-to-day streetcar drivers. Each operator will have at least 30 hours of training, but DDOT hasn't said how long this will take overall. Let's come back to this later too.

Following that, the Federal Transit Administration will oversee final safety certification. In other cities with streetcars this takes 90-120 days, although engineers caution it could be more for DC since this is DC's first time doing it. Let's assume 120 days, or 4 months. Starting from July 16, that pushes the streetcar to mid-November.

Once safety certification is complete, passenger service should begin within 30 days. That puts us in December, before we've even accounted for the integration tests or the operator training.

Unless those tasks take no more than about one week each, an opening date after the new year looks unavoidable.

Honest communication will help regain trust

This may not exactly be another delay. Rather, it seems a more honest account of the timeline all along.

Last year, Mayor Gray trumpeted a late 2013 opening that now appears to have never been technically realistic. Was DDOT under orders from the mayor to hide the true timeline? Or maybe DDOT officials felt pressure to give Mayor Gray overly optimistic assumptions, and the mayor never knew the real timeline. Or maybe it's just taken a lot longer than anybody thought.

Either way, having been burned by this, the streetcar team now seems afraid to give many timeline details at all, forcing reporters like Aaron Wiener to try and piece things together.

But fear of missing another deadline is hurting DDOT more than missing deadlines would. Instead of setting expectations for 2015, DDOT officials keep saying they don't know how long work will take. Washingtonians hopeful to ride the streetcar soon have nothing to go on, and assume opening day is at most a month or two away. Every couple of months feels like a fresh delay.

Instead of one clear delay and one negative news cycle, DDOT's lack of communication have resulted in fresh news cycles reporting mounting delays every couple of months. The press has had an ongoing joke about a "race" between the streetcar and the Silver Line for which will open first. (It looks like the Silver Line will "win.")

DDOT may not know exactly how long every task will take, and it's understandable that the timeline needs padding to account for problems. It's taken longer than expected for Oregon Iron Works to build the streetcar vehicles. Officials say the extra-harsh winter slowed some things down. So did historic preservation at Spingarn High School for the maintenance facility (though in a city where preservation has a hand in many big projects, perhaps it shouldn't have been such a surprise).

But officials should have a general idea of roughly how long each task will take. Instead of giving no information at all about integration testing and driver training, officials could share a range. Instead of leaving us to guess how long until the line opens, they should give a range.

Then, if there's a setback that is out of everyone's control, like a lot of snow, honestly reassess the timeline. It doesn't help to insist that the line can open by July 2013 when it's also clear the vehicles won't arrive by then, for instance.

The agency's inability or unwillingness to articulate a realistic timeline is frustrating, and is clearly having a negative effect on streetcar politics. In 2010, a lot of people rose up to defend a streetcar project which seemed just around the corner. Four years later, there's much less enthusiasm to fight for streetcars, in part because DDOT has lost credibility.

DDOT's problem has now become similar to WMATA's. There's a lot of legitimate work to be done, and some understandable reasons why it hasn't been done yet. But problems and bad communication have caused the public to stop trusting the agency, and fear of potential negative stories has led people on the inside to keep quiet even more when they need to be communicating more. That's an enormous problem. Understandable delays sound like excuses when trust doesn't exist.

This is a difficult phase for any project

Infrastructure projects are expensive, time-consuming, hard on the community, and politically challenging. It's common for big projects like this to face obstacles in the home stretch. Costs and criticism have been mounting for years, while benefits remain off in the future.

Having to wait longer to actually benefit from the streetcar is frustrating. Not knowing how long it will take, or hearing timelines which are obviously unrealistic, is especially frustrating. But this difficult time will eventually pass.

Meanwhile, however, while it's still ongoing, DDOT must shed its fear of disappointing people, and begin to communicate with the public as openly and honestly as it possibly can.


DDOT social media goes from gold standard to gaffe-filled

The District Department of Transportation has long been known for its effective use of social media, particularly Twitter. But more recently, DDOT has fallen short on reaching out to the public online. The DDOT Twiter feed took a particularly bizarre turn this past Monday.

Screen shot of DDOT's Twitter page.

Residents who tweeted DDOT with a request to fix a pothole or a question about a construction project received an unhelpful and somewhat patronizing message: "Thx 4 this Tweet! Service has been requested. Thank you for using DDOT TWITTER. Thank you for being a "Super-Citizen'!"

While DDOT always used Twitter to disseminate information and promote transparency, it was its consistently prompt responses to service requests that earned it a stellar reputation among citizens. Mark Bjorge and John Lisle, who ran the feed, displayed a wry sense of humor rarely seen coming from a government communications office.

Bjorge and Lisle both left the agency earlier this year. Since then, tweets to DDOT have been answered slowly, or not at all. When these latest boilerplate tweets started coming out on Monday, the backlash was palpable.

DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez insists that the agency is trying to get back on top of its Twitter game and has no intention of letting its social media presence continue to slide. "Those responses don't represent a new direction we're taking," she says, and went on to state that the automated replies are "not effective" and are "being addressed."

The concerns they've heard have hit home for the agency. "This brings to light the role our followers play when it comes to our communication here," says Hernandez. "They are our eyes and ears, and their feedback is critical."

That's a great outlook, but it's even better when put into practice. Since Twitter has played such a vital role in communication between DDOT and District residents over the past few years, I hoped that the department would recognize the value in bringing on other social media-literate employees after the staff changes took place. Instead, District residents have lost one of the most reliable means of communicating with the city about transportation issues.

Hernandez was unable to say whether Bjorge and Lisle had undergone any special social media training, or what kind of training is being provided to those currently at the feed's helm. She mentioned that DDOT's goal was to have more than just two people running its Twitter account, as questions and requests could be answered faster if there are more hands on deck.

Whatever the method, let's hope that DDOT's social media growing pains end soon. The agency has a great model for how to do social media right—its own past. Many agencies may face a long road building the in-house capacity to use social media well, but it's sad to see one so quickly lose its expertise and success.

Public Spaces

Closed pools, communication snafus dismay children

Sometimes a public pool or other facility just can't be open when everyone hopes, but when the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) isn't able to keep its website and voicemail up to date, sudden changes leave children crying and parents frustrated.

Photo by tomorrowstand on Flickr.

On Labor Day weekend Saturday, September 8, I told my 3-year-old that we would go swim together at Wilson Pool when he woke up the next day. My son absolutely loves swimming, and went to sleep focused on my promise to him. That's what toddlers do.

The next morning at 8:30 am, I double-checked the Wilson website, and called to listen to their voicemail. Both said that the pool would be open at 9 am. My son put on his bathing suit and we walked to the bus stop for the 20-minute ride to Tenleytown.

As we walked up to the entrance, I saw a family with 3 children in dry bathing suits walking my way, one of whom was crying. A paper sign on the door said that the pool would be closed for another week, after 2 weeks of maintenance scheduled to be complete the day before. "I checked the website," the father said to his kids.

When I explained to my little guy that the pool was closed, he asked a couple of times, "When will it be open?" and "Why is it closed?" until the reality sank in and he had a crying tantrum on the sidewalk.

I tweeted my frustration that Wilson was closed despite contrary information on both the website and voicemail.

DPR replied to say that they had sent out a press release via email and posted the information on Twitter, but they have a small communications staff, all of which was unavailable for much of the weekend. The press release said that an "HVAC parts shipment has been delayed".

DPR Chief of Staff John Stokes says that the communications staff at DPR was 7 people when he arrived 5 years ago, and is now 2 people due to budget cuts. However, DPR did not request additional communications staff in the most recent budget.

Stokes also said that few DPR staff can update the website, since they first need training on the web platform. They aren't the only agency where the information on the web often lags other modes of communication; press releases for events from many agencies often go out to press lists but don't appear on the web until the next day.

DC's Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), which runs centralized technology systems like the website, is working to switch to a new system built on the popular Drupal platform. OCTO Spokesperson Ayanna Smith says this will make it easier for more staff to update web pages. OCTO expects to finish this transition in FY 2013, which means by Sept 30, 2013, said Smith.

Because of their limitations placing pool closure information on their website, DPR relies on Twitter and Facebook to communicate closures. They have done a good job responding to residents via social media. However, it seems unlikely that pool users would think to check DPR's Twitter feed to check if a pool is closed.

DPR has engaged a firm to survey DC residents on how to improve their communication. What would you tell DPR? How do you think they should inform the public of unscheduled pool closures and other changes?


Metro opens doors, closes data

Metro used to publish lists of service disruptions online, but soon after I published a post analyzing the data, Metro stopped posting new reports and eventually removed the entire archive. Is this good customer relations?

Photo by Marcin Wichary on Flickr.

Metro officials say that the reports require a lot of staff time, but they already have internal reports that show the same information, just in a more technical way. Metro could, and should, still release those reports to interested members of the press or transit aficionados who can interpret them for the public.

If Metro's performance is getting better, then posting these reports would help advocates write reports or articles about that fact, and boost public confidence in the work CEO Richard Sarles and his team are doing. If the performance is not getting better, then we should be having a public conversation with WMATA officials about what it would take to get improvements, or when the current repair schedule will start to bear fruit.

Here's an example service disruption from a report I received from a WMATA insider:

Other reports are a little simpler to understand:
A lot of this message wouldn't make sense to the vast majority of commuters. WMATA could still post these with a glossary that helps decode even this cryptic report, though there is the possibility that customers would see them and be confused, or call in to customer service about it.

Instead of posting these, WMATA created a "Vital Signs" report, which lists a few high-level metrics like overall rail on-time performance. But one number for rail on-time performance hides a lot of important information. A train can be late up to half the headway and still count as on time, meaning that when trains run every 20 minutes, trains could still be 10 minutes late or early. It doesn't include performance during planned track work, and other factors.

Today, WMATA's approach to public information seems to be to release only a few conclusions, not any deeper information. When the Riders' Advisory Council or others have asked for more, they've been told that it's the job of staff, and nobody else, to analyze data and tell the public and press what to believe about the issues.

But to many riders, this isn't satisfying. WMATA officials say they're aggressively fixing problems, but will those fixes actually lead to better performance, and when? So far, the agency has just cut the on-time performance target from 95% to 90%. It's never met its goal for the frequency equipment breaks down ("mean time before failure") since the data have been reported, and does not appear to be improving.

It's no secret that WMATA's reputation as a reliable transit service is tarnished by frequent service delays and offloads. If Metro begins to publish these reports again, customers could decipher the differences in service disruptions that are the fault of customer behavior like blocking doors, sick passengers, or police activity, and those that are due to maintenance issues like brake, track control circuit, or door problems.

Compare this to San Francisco and Chicago, two transit agencies that have longer histories of reporting service data.

Chicago reports number of rail delays of 10 minutes or more, percentage of track that is affected by a slow zone restriction, miles between rail vehicle defects, percentage of the rail fleet unavailable for service, and percentage of customer complaints not closed out within 14 days.

San Francisco reports how closely they're meeting the schedule (similar to WMATA), how the headways match up against the plan (more useful to customers for frequent routes), the amount of service, late pull-outs, overcrowded vehicles, the number of unexcused absences, mean distance between failures for trains, vacancy rates for service-critical positions, and the complaint resolution rate within 14 days.

San Francisco and Chicago implemented better performance reporting as part of an effort to regain the public trust after a long decline in service. Metro should do the same in a concerted effort to truly move Metro Forward.

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