Washington, D.C., one of the most powerful cities on Earth, has been thrown off-stride by a transit crisis. Starting March 16, the U.S. capital’s Metro system, which serves more than 710,000 passengers daily, closed down for 29 hours for emergency power cable inspections, two days after cable fires caused significant delays on three of Metro’s six lines. Weary customers found alternatives, but this is another transit disappointment in a metropolitan area that has dealt with old railcars, late trains and a lack of accurate schedules. Trust in Metro is at a low point. But, the shutdown isn’t just bad for the Metro; it has broader impacts for the whole of the city.
Public transit is essential to an environmentally sustainable urban future. But it requires public confidence in the transit system. To get people out of their personal cars, there needs to be an attractive alternative. The benefits for the entire city are clear: less traffic congestion, more productive time for commuters, reduced pollution, and better public health and safety. Without trust in the system’s reliability, though, it will be an uphill battle.
When people lose confidence due to unexpected closures and a lack of service predictability, they are more likely to turn to cars as a dependable and convenient way to travel. This may already be happening in Washington, where the Metro system has seen 40,000 fewer riders between 2010 and 2014 and a well-documented decrease in user satisfaction. Residents who live close to stations in transit-oriented developments are taking the metro less. Getting these people back to the metro will require offering them high quality, dependable service–but winning people back can take years of reliable service. This week’s system-wide closure may further erode rider confidence in Metro’s reliability.
Finding out what users of systems like Metro need and perceive can help. In Curitiba, Brazil, the QualiÔnibus satisfaction survey, supported by WRI, aimed to measure the strengths and pitfalls of the local bus rapid transit (BRT) system. By learning how users saw the system, the survey allowed planners to make meaningful changes, including improved security systems, better lighting, and improved infrastructure in stations and pathways. In Rio de Janeiro, similar surveys were conducted for the TransCarioca BRT system, ending in targeted improvements that raised user satisfaction from 1.7 to 5.8 on a 10-point scale. By using direct feedback from users, the city was able to make the changes customers wanted, ensuring continued success and safety.
The Washington, D.C. mass transit system would do well to increase responsiveness to specific rider complaints and safety concerns. Acknowledging the perception and satisfaction of transit riders is important, as we take on current challenges to safety and quality of service. Perhaps this week’s shutdown will provide the opportunity for implementation of such changes, as safety inspectors take stock of the condition of the Metro.
When the image of Washington’s Metro is one of broken elevators, delayed trains and electrical fires, it is hard for riders to trust the system. Acting on providing reliable, safe service would be a step toward turning drivers into transit customers, improving sustainability in this iconic city of monuments and cherry blossoms.