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The day the DC Metro shut down

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A map of today’s WMATA Metro service offerings. (Via Peter Dovak on Twitter)

Whenever we begin to think the MTA has pushed New York City toward an intractable transit situation, Washington DC’s WMATA makes such a load splash to remind us that it could be much, much worse. Yesterday, at around 4 p.m., news broke that, following a fire on Monday, the DC Metro had to shut down for emergency safety inspections. Due to safety concerns with the electricity deliver system that runs the subway in the nation’s capital, the DC Metro will not run at all today as crews inspect the entirety of the system’s power cables. If all goes according to plan, the Metro will reopen tomorrow at 5 a.m., but if anything is amiss, the shutdown could run longer.

The Washington Post, unsurprisingly, has had the most comprehensive coverage of the safety issues facing Metro and offered up a summary of the problem:

This is about the havoc electricity can cause when it gets loose, when it isn’t contained within power cables by tight, reliable insulation — when the juice finds a path out…Like all subway power lines, the jumper cables are heavily insulated. But if the insulation is compromised — if it wears out or is damaged — there is an excellent chance that trouble will soon follow.

Here is why: Moisture is commonplace in subway tunnels. So are “particulate contaminants,” including brake dust, rust flakes and metallic shavings from train wheels. There is also a lot of grime in the tunnels. And there is plenty of other gunk, such as oil. In electrical-speak, these are “conductive substances,” meaning they have a low resistance to electricity. They offer a path for electrical current to jump dangerously all over a tunnel if the electricity escapes from its insulated containment. All it takes is for a path to be completed — for a trail of moisture, particulates or other conductive material to come in contact with the exposed electrical current. The phenomenon is called “arcing.”

…Jumper cables and other power lines are attached to one another, and attached to third rails, by large, elbow-shaped connector assemblies called “boots.” In its investigation of the L’Enfant incident, the NTSB also warned that throughout the subway, “a number” of boots lacked the proper type of “sealing sleeves,” which are designed to keep contaminants away from the electrical current. Metro acknowledged that about 80 percent of its 6,400 power-cable connector assemblies lacked adequate sealing sleeves. Wiedefeld said Tuesday that about half of the faulty boots have been upgraded, but months of work on that project still remains.

It’s a rather technical discussion, but you get the point: The WMATA’s power delivery system is in danger of failing, and the consequences can be disastrous for riders. So the agency is going to inspect all 600 jumper cables today and made a decision, on around eight hours’ notice, to shutter for the entirety of a busy mid-week day.

As you can imagine, reaction has not been particularly kind. The WMATA has a long history of safety problems from collisions and derailments to seemingly spontaneous fires, and politicians in the region — who should bear some of the blame for this situation — aren’t happy. A Virginia representative called it “a gut punch to the hundreds of thousands of commuters who depend on the system,” and John Delaney of Maryland did not mince his words. “It is deeply disturbing that the system is in such a precarious state that it must be entirely and abruptly shut down during the middle of a workweek,” he said. “This is a stark demonstration of a total agency failure; now is the time for every stakeholder in WMATA to demand better performance and improved safety.”

Traffic isn’t moving as a combination of buses, bikes, taxis, private vehicles and a trolling 2.4 mile mixed-traffic streetcar are all trying to pick up the transportation slack, but that is nearly besides the point. The point, as regional growth advocacy groups have noted is a history of lack of support for ongoing maintenance combined with a culture that hasn’t emphasized system safety. Perhaps it’s because the WMATA is run, at various points, by two states with differing political outlooks, a barely-empowered District of Columbia and the federal government, all fighting with and against each other. Perhaps it stems from a lack of transparency and sustainable funding, as NARP alleged in a statement.

Around an hour or so before the shutdown was leaked and later confirmed, David Alpert, founder of Greater Greater Washington, published his comprehensive overview of the transportation problems plaguing Washington DC. Without a balanced growth plan, more support for the WMATA and steady funding, the nation’s capital will see its subway system slide further toward unreliability. It’s a fear we’ve seen realized in New York and one that always seems on the precipice of returning. Wednesday’s outage is a reminder of how our cities rely on transit systems that do not enjoy the political support and fiscal backing these systems need to stay healthy, and I’m not sure I see a clear way forward without a massive shift in public priorities and philosophies.

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Years of trouble plaguing Washington, DC’s WMATA reached another crescendo earlier this week when one person died following a smoke incident aboard a yellow line train. Carol Glover succumbed to smoke inhalation after rescuers took over 40 minutes to reach a train stranded in the tunnel only a few hundred feet from L’Enfant Plaza, and over 80 other passengers were hospitalized. For an agency plagued with operations issues, safety concerns and very tight finances, it was yet another reminder of the WMATA’s precarious position.

According to preliminary reports out of DC and the NTSB, the incident involved an electrical malfunction inside the tunnel, and while firefighters responded, according to DC’s mayor, “within the time frames that are customary,” they waited to enter the tunnel. The delay proved deadly for Glover, and footage from the incident shows a dark and disabled train filled with smoke. It was a tragedy that creates its own bad press.

In the aftermath, coverage has focused on both short-term perceptions surrounding the WMATA and the long-term need to emphasize culture. Here’s Aaron Wiener on the former:

In an informal Washington Post poll yesterday, nearly half of respondents said they would reconsider how often they ride Metro. Variants of “I’m done with Metro” proliferated on Twitter. It’s a sensible enough position. Metro has a reputation for shoddy service and a history of not learning from its mistakes, including with this incident, apparently caused by an “electrical arcing event” of the sort that has routinely plagued the system of late. Why should we reward such a poorly run enterprise with our business, or place our lives in the hands of a system we can’t trust?

Understandable though it may be, this is exactly the wrong way to respond to the latest tragedy. If we really want to fix what’s broken with Metro, we should start riding it more, not less…

The fact is, if we want Metro to work better, we have to ride it more. Nearly 60 percent of Metro’s daily operational costs are funded by fares and other revenue. And that revenue is threatened. Ridership dropped slightly during the recession, then suddenly plummeted in the past two years, down to 2005 levels. There are a number of factors—more people are telecommuting or getting to work by bike or bus—but the effect is clear. Fewer riders means bigger fare hikes to cover costs, which in turn will likely mean fewer riders. It’s a vicious cycle we don’t want to get caught up in.

As Wiener explores, for some reason, ridership on the Metro has cratered over the past few years, and it’s now at 2005 levels. The WMATA is facing a multi-billion-dollar budget gap that makes the MTA’s fiscal difficulties look like pennies, and it can’t drum up consistent support for the politically schizophrenic Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It’s the MTA’s worst case scenario writ small.

Meanwhile, other commentators were quick to point out how much safer transit is than driving. That’s of no consolation to Ms. Glover’s family, but even as passengers grow weary of transit after high-profile incidents, these incidents gain headlines precisely because they are rare. Now, it’s easy to make the case that fatalities on rail systems are generally 100% unavoidable. This week’s wasn’t even caused by the rolling stock that the NTSB hates; it was electrical. But transit remains very safe:

In 39 years of service, the total number of passengers killed while riding on Metro rail cars is 12. Now compare that to the fatalities in cars, trucks and motorcycles in a single year — 145 deaths in 2013, in the District and the suburban counties that Metro serves…

A new, peer-reviewed academic study published in the Journal of Public Transportation casts light on the first point. It reports that the rate of passenger fatalities in cars and light trucks is 30 times as high as for travel by subway or light rail. It was based on data in the United States from 2000 to 2009.

Even with these numbers, without the culture of safety, passengers are not comforted by statistics. Metro needs to realize a new culture without enough fiscal or political support. Here, in New York, the MTA is working to do something similar, but they don’t have nearly the same track record of mistakes to overcome. If we aren’t careful, though, DC serves as a lesson. It’s New York’s dystopian transit future if no one takes care of the system.

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DC is moving forward with another fare payment system that far surpasses New York’s.

The MetroCard just hit the big 2-0 earlier this week, and while the MTA desperately wants to find a suitable replacement, the familiar gold-and-blue piece of plastic is likely to live to see 25. In fits and starts, the MTA has tried to find a way to bring on board something better, something with lower fare collection and maintenance costs, something that will survive the next two or three decades. But an effort that was restarted last year has yet to bear fruit.

Meanwhile, other transit systems are moving forward quickly with their own plans to find a next-gen fare payment system. Earlier this week, Washington’s WMATA announced that it will begin testing a new electronic payment program that, if all goes according to plan, will replace the current scheme. It builds off of the SmarTrip tap-and-go system and could give riders more options for paying their fares.

The WMATA opted to give the $184 million to Accenture, and while I’ll touch upon the problems with that decision shortly, we have details from a press release:

The new system will be designed to provide a state of the art system for Metro customers that enables them to continue to use SmarTrip cards, while expanding fare payment to chip-enabled credit cards, federal government ID cards, and mobile phones using near field communications (NFC).

“While Metro pioneered the tap and go system we currently use, by today’s standards that system is cumbersome and the technology is not sustainable,” said Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles. “The new technology will provide more flexibility for accounts, better reliability for riders, and real choices for customers to use bank-issued payment cards, credit cards, ID cards, or mobile phones to pay their Metro fares.”

Washington Metro will be among the first transit systems in the United States to use this advanced technology to enhance reliability, and make travel more convenient for riders. Accenture will help deliver the electronic fare management system by combining its transit experience with industry and functional management consulting expertise in mobility, analytics, customer service, payments, financial services, retail and marketing science. Accenture has successfully implemented similar technology in Canada and the Netherlands.

The driving goal behind this plan, as it is in New York, is to reduce the costs of ongoing maintenance and completely phase out paper farecards. Metro says that just 10 percent of riders still use those clunky cards, and the WMATA’s vintage fare gates will be replaced if all goes according to plan. The initial pilot will be implemented in 10 Metro stations — or around 12 percent of the system — and on 50 buses as well.

The choice of Accenture is not without its problems. As a WAMU report detailed, Accenture had some issues implementing a similar technology in Toronto back in 2012, but WMATA officials said they were confident the company could deliver. “Our procurement was very thorough and competitive. We looked at a ‘best value’ procurement and we felt that the partner we selected is going to work the best for Metro,” Metro CFO Carol Kissal said. “We considered their technical design, their history and their background, and all those things were factored in the decision.”

This, to me, is forward progress. While the Metro is much smaller than the MTA’s with many fewer stations, the nation’s second busiest subway system is moving forward with a fare payment system that isn’t only more advanced than New York’s but will lap us as well. Already, Metro has a tap-and-go system; now they’re moving further beyond any sort of swipe-based technology. Hopefully, we won’t be commemorating the MetroCard’s 30th birthday in 10 years, but who wants to take any bets?

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Is this the Washington DC Metro system of the future? Plans for 2040 call for a loop line servicing ten stations.

When the MTA unveiled its Twenty Years Needs Assessment earlier this year, I was disappointed. The fantasy planner in me wanted something more adventurous, and the 20-year wants were more exciting the 20-year needs. A few decades ago, when the MTA’s needs assessment included East Side Access and the Second Ave. Subway, the report seemed more exciting, but now the agency needs to make sure its trains can keep running over the existing track over the next few decades. Expansion will have to wait.

To the south of New York City, though, expansion is all the rage. If we want to find a transit agency eying a multi-billion-dollar growth initiative replete with fantasy maps that could become reality, we need look no further than the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. As part of their 2040 assessment — or really their needs for today or tomorrow — the WMATA has proposed adding 10 stations and a new loop line that would alleviate congestion on crowded trains while serving criminally under-served areas. The plans don’t, unfortunately, include bench seating in their new rolling stock, but their $26 billion investment could solve a lot of Metro’s access issues.

When the plans were first announced a few weeks ago, The Washington Post ran an extensive piece on the upgrades, and Metro’s own planning blog showcased the map. The Post summarized:

Metro’s planners have begun suggesting that the region add 10 new stations and create four “super stations” by adding capacity and connections around the two Farragut Square stations, Union Station, the Capitol South station and the Pentagon station.

The 10 new stations have not been named. But going clockwise from Rosslyn, they look something like Rosslyn II, Georgetown University, Georgetown, West End, Thomas Circle, Mount Vernon Triangle, Capitol Hill North, Navy Yard II, Waterfront II and Potomac Park.

The actual locations have not been decided, but the idea is to have them built by 2040…The proposed stations and connections, chosen over three other concepts, reflect the need to expand capacity in the system’s core, said Shyam Kannan, Metro’s chief planner. “The inner lining, where we share tracks for two lines, worked for 40 years but becomes a problem going forward given the demands of the system,” he said.

The Post goes on to discuss the challenges facing the WMATA, and they, of course, start with the price tag. It’s not a stretch to say that $26 billion for new or expanded stations and a good amount of tunneling is wildly optimistic. It would require Virginia and DC to convince their third partner to spend on a rail extension that doesn’t touch Maryland and would need to convince everyone that more than 14 percent of area residents would turn to the subway for their daily commuting needs. Despite population growth in D.C. and crushing congestion, that figure hasn’t gone up in nearly two decades.

Outside of the WMATA, DC is forging ahead with transit in ways New York is not. They’re planning out a streetcar/light rail system that will put our Select Bus Service to shame and seem willing to tackle capacity issues. Whether the money and political support materializes is another question entirely, but the will is there in a way it doesn’t seem to be in New York right now.

Of course, maybe this is all just fantasyland. It’s easy to make a map and toss up on the Internet. It’s hard to fight for dollars, spend them properly and improve service. Still, for once, I envy DC and the WMATA’s forward-looking proposals. It’s a hell of a lot sexier than a bunch of signal system upgrades.

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Some of WMATA’s capital goals include in-system transfer points between popular stations.

The MTA’s capital plan may be considered something of a mess. For $25 billion – give or take a few billion – every five years, the MTA embarks on a steady stream of expansion and rehabilitation projects. Sure, new construction efforts cost far too much, and sure, nothing seems to be completed on time. But the capital program, born out of the system’s 1970s nadir, isn’t going anywhere. It’s too important to the city, its subway riders and its construction lobby.

Of course, the capital plan isn’t perfect. I can’t overstate how project costs and construction pace have hindered rapid subway expansion, and the MTA is constantly fighting for the dollars it so desperately needs. It’s clear from even cursory glances around the system that the remains elusive. Additionally, as the capital plan has lately been funded through a series of bond issues, the MTA’s dept payment obligations have increased rapidly over the last decade.

The perpetual stream of funding for capital dollars though is not something we should take for granted. Despite the frustrations we often feel toward Albany, someone had the foresight to put such a plan in place. If we turn our eye to the south, we find in Washington, D.C., an agency held hostage by two states, the District of Columbia and the federal government with a clear need for maintenance and expansion but no real plan to pay for any of it.

Earlier on Thursday, WMATA unveiled a new strategic plan called Momentum which includes a modest expansion of the Metro system, some long-awaited transfer tunnels between the Farragut stations and between Gallery Place and Metro Center and, finally, some express tracks along certain routes. Total expenditures would add up to approximately $1 billion a year through 2040, low by New York’s standards but high nonetheless. There’s a catch though: No one knows how these plans will be funded.

Dana Hedgpeth of The Washington Post delves into the funding issue. She writes:

Dubbed “Momentum,” and 18 months in the making, Metro’s new strategic plan catalogues the system’s needs and renews the long-standing argument for Metro to have a dedicated funding source, just as many big-city transit systems do. Metro’s lack of capital investment in the past decade has been blamed on that lack of dedicated funding, and planners say that unless that changes, there is little hope of executing the ambitious strategic plan that will be formally unveiled Thursday.

A new Metro line is being built in Northern Virginia, but it is being constructed for Metro by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, with revenue from the Dulles Toll Road financing a significant part of the line’s $5.6 billion cost.

No such obvious source of financing exists for the new rail line and tunnels proposed in Metro’s new strategic plan, and the plan does not specify how the agency would finance the rail expansion and other costly improvements….Unlike other transit agencies in New York, Boston and Los Angeles that depend on some level of dedicated funds from specific taxes, Metro receives contributions from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government for its operating and capital budgets, which total $2.5 billion. Shyam Kannan, Metro’s chief planner, said it will take a “reliable, sustained stream of capital funding from a combination of local and federal” moneys to pay for the slew of proposed projects.

Metro is nearing its maximum capacity, and at some point, the region’s planners and politicians will have to address that prickly issue. If D.C. is to grow, its subway system must grow as well, but without a steady source of funding, that growth is never a sure thing.

Here in New York, we argue for more funding. We argue for direct contributions instead of debt financing, and we argue for more subsidies for the operations budget. Although our system is still struggling to overcome decades of deferred maintenance, a plan, no matter how tough to realize, exists. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact, but it’s one we should not take for granted. After all, it could always be worse: The MTA could be the protect of four governments all with their own political viewpoints, interests and financial endgoals at stake.

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One WMATA board member isn't sold on a Silver Line station stop at Dulles. (Image via The Transport Politic)

If New York had its druthers, public transportation to its airports would be more direct than it is today. Right now, existing transit connections serve to get air travelers almost to their destinations. Instead of direct service, the trip to Newark or JFK Airports involves a two-seat ride with an automated people-mover that delivers travelers from one train station to a terminal. Of course, a subway to JFK’s door would still involve travel from a train station to the terminal, but as London’s Piccadilly Line shows, it’s not an impossible way to travel.

Down in the Washington, D.C. area, the WMATA is finally rectifying a grave oversight of travel. They are amidst work on a multi-billion extension of the Metro that will finally, mercifully bring subway service to Dulles Airport. By New York standards, this so-called Silver Line seems downright cheap, mostly because it involves a good amount of at-grade construction. The final project will bring 23 miles of track and 11 new stations to the area for under $7 billion. Jealous yet?

Still, one Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board member isn’t satisfied. To save $70 million — or a little over 1 percent of the project’s total cost — Bob Brown proposed eliminating the Dulles stop, straightening out the alignment and constructing a people mover from the nearest station to the airport. “In my view this would be superior transportation service for our passengers,” Brown said.

Other WMATA board members were quick to shoot down the plan. “This is a creative idea,” Mame Reiley said, “but it’s not rail to Dulles. Fifteen years ago I might have been supportive, but I just don’t think that’s what we labored for is not to have rail to Dulles.”

That’s a rather singular vision put forward by Reiley. They’re not going to change their minds after 15 years of planning, and Greater Greater Washington issued a similar appeal. “Cutting so many corners that you don’t achieve your goal is not cost savings, it’s failure. Far from saving $70 million, by failing to provide Metro service to Dulles Airport Brown’s proposal would actually waste billions,” Dan Malouff wrote. He concluded: “The absolute minimum requirement for a Metro line to Dulles Airport must be that it actually reaches Dulles Airport. Period.”

I’m often skeptical of any argument that must be emphasized with a superfluous “period,” and another piece I read on the issue seemed to bare that out. Yonah Freemark ponders whether or not an airport line must actually service an airport. It may be perfectly acceptable and more beneficial for all riders if the airport line does what New York’s does. That is, if the train to the plane takes you to a people-mover that can better service airport terminals, everyone might come ahead.

After running some numbers, Freemark finds that total travel time from Route 28 — the station from which a Dulles people-mover would depart — to the airport isn’t significantly different if the WMATA goes with a station stop at Dulles or an airport connector. The difference, he notes, is in perceived convenience. It’s viewed as inconvenient for someone laden with bags and stressing to catch a flight to switch to yet another mode of transit. No one wants a two-seat ride; everyone craves a one-seat trip.

Ultimately, the people-mover proposal is a non-starter. It could streamline rides for folks traveling on the so-called Phase 2 of the Silver Line that connects parts north and west of the airport with the rest of the Metro system, but after years of fighting it out, the WMATA isn’t about to give up the airport station for an effort now called Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. It might just be worth it though for everyone involved.

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In 1976, the first stations along the WMATA’s Red Line opened, and with it, came a new era of development and mobility for the Nation’s Capital. Today, Metro is expanding outward toward Dulles Airport, and talk of a purple line that would ring around the district, connecting Silver Spring, Bethesda and beyond, bubbles up now and again. But what would happen to the area of there was no mass transit network?

As it argues for better funding, that’s the question one WMATA transportation analyst has tried to answer. As Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities blog writes, a Capital without its subway system is a strange place indeed. Instead of a centralized downtown area, the region would be choked with traffic, thus leading to more localized economic development. “We looked at that and realized we were watching the economy splinter,” Justin Anthos, the author of the study said. “All of a sudden, we weren’t watching a regional economy function where workers could find jobs in the whole region.”

As 200,000 per day take the Metro into D.C., Antos’ research found that to maintain such commuting levels would require 15 new lanes of freeways and 166 blocks of five-story parking garages. The absurdity of it all, he says, is the point of the investigation. “Part of the study was to put in context the choices that our region faces in the future, which are that we can either continue to protect and expand our transit investment, or we can basically just keep it static, or even let it degrade,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘we chose not to expand.’ There’s some other alternative that you would be forced to live in. And we have to take a gander at what that alternative would be, so we can make informed decisions.” It is a lesson our fair city and its politicians should take to heart as well.

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Thirty five years ago, Washington DC’s Metro opened. It’s hard to believe the system is still so new, but basically, in New York terms, the Nation’s Capitol is where our system was in 1939. Of course, by the time 1939 had rolled around, New York had added on part of a Second System and had an ambitious plan for a huge expansion plan. Now it’s DC’s turn.

In an excellent piece for Greater Greater Washington, Matt Johnson highlighted a series of plans under discussion by WMATA planners that could be incorporated into a Metro Second System. These include a circumferential route, spurs off of the blue, yellow and red lines that would better cover Washington DC proper and a variety of better connections into the suburbs. Even if just some of these plans are realized over the next few decades, DC will be far better off for it.

While I’m giving Matt’s piece short shrift, I wanted to pose a discussion question: If New York could start all over again with its Second System plans, where should they build a subway in currently underserved areas? We talked earlier this week about a rail connection to LaGuardia, and the Utica Ave./South 4th St. line remains a great unrealized part of subway history. Would a Triboro RX circumferential line remain a priority? Better expansion past Jamaica in Queens? Crosstown connections from Upper Manhattan into the Bronx? New York hasn’t seen significant subway expansion since the 1930s, and I envy DC the opportunity to grow its system over the coming decades.

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Lengthy station names can make a map tough to read. (Photo by flickr user Mieko Yamaguchi)

When I lived in DC way back in 2005, my nearest subway stop had, by any account, a ludicrous name. I lived a five- or six-minute walk away from the Woodley Park/Zoo-Adams Morgan station and always had a hard time coming to grips with its name. It was far longer than anything we have in New York, and it’s not particularly accurate. The Zoo is equidistant from the Cleveland Park station, and the walk from there is all downhill. Meanwhile, the red line services Adams Morgan in name only as that neighborhood is a good ten minutes away from the Metro stop.

This ungainly naming convention wasn’t unique to my station. The U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo stop leads the system, and others such as Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter or Mt Vernon Sq 7th St-Convention Center try to cram in as much as they can in 19 characters. It certainly makes “23rd Street” on the West Side IRT seem runty in comparison, and if our worst station name is Sutphin Boulevard/Archer Ave./JFK Airport, we’re probably doing OK.

Over the years, those concerned with the usability of the Metro have raised the issue now and then. Back in 2009, Dan Malouff on Greater Greater Washington called for an overhaul of WMATA names. “Do we really need to know,” he asked, “that students attending George Mason University sometimes use the Vienna station? GMU’s campus is over 5 miles from Vienna. The station does not directly serve the university. The name doesn’t have to be there.”

Now, the WMATA is gearing up to redesign the map, and I have to wonder if they should take a gander at station names as well. The impetus behind the redesigned map is a simple one: With new routes coming online over the next few days, the WMATA has to better represent its service patterns. Here’s how Dr. Gridlock explained it in March:

To plan for the proposed split in the Blue Line and the later addition of the Dulles rail extension, Metro is studying how people pick up visual clues about which train to take. Barbara Richardson, Metro’s assistant general manager for customer service, communication and marketing, announced last Thursday that the transit authority also is bringing back its original mapmaker, Lance Wyman, to revise the well-known map.

How often do riders use the map, and what do they use it for? On the trains, there are big maps at the ends of the cars and smaller ones near the center doors. In a crowded car, some riders will stand on tiptoes and peer at it. Others need to get real close and study the text. Most commuters are taking the same trip every day, and they ignore it, unless a tourist asks for directions. There’s likely to be a lot of map-gazing during the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival.

Meanwhile, Greater Greater Washington has been hosting a contest this spring. They asked readers and cartographers to redesign the map, and a panel of judges selected the best. Readers have now been asked to vote on their favorites. The new maps had to show upcoming system expansions — an idea my readers have proposed for New York’s map — and must delineate between off-peak and peak service offerings, a key description now missing from our map.

For now, those in DC aren’t concerned with the station names, but they have recognized in the past that it makes maps particularly tough to design. With lengthy station names, squeezing in that much typography leads to areas of the map that are tough to read and station names that do not adequately pinpoint their location.

Should transit authorities label their maps based on the station location or the areas and neighborhoods within walking distance from that station? That seems to be the question with which DC must grapple, and the WMATA is leaning toward a new philosophy: The shorter, the better, says Barbara Richardson, the agency’s customer service officer. A map that’s easier to read may trump information overload. After all, it’s not too hard to tell someone to get off at Woodley Park to get to Adams Morgan. The station name needn’t be so inclusive and spare words may soon be getting the axe.

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A glimpse at when U.S. heavy rail systems operate. (Courtesy of Matt Johnson/Track Twenty-Nine)

As New York’s MTA struggles to make sure it has enough money to avoid future service cuts and fare hikes, the WMATA is considering changes to America’s Subway in Washington, D.C. As Greater Greater Washington reported earlier on Thursday, to save money and add, in essence, 45 days to its maintenance schedule, the authority may end weekend service at midnight instead of 3 a.m. As the vast majority of District residents and some WMATA Board members are incensed by the idea, it is one to which the WMATA Board often turns in times of fiscal crisis.

The hours of the D.C. Metro and the way the system is run has always been a bit perplexing to me. It’s full of contradictions and highlights a tension between those who live in the District and those who live in the suburbs. Anyone from New York would probably find it infuriating as I often did when I lived in D.C. a few years ago.

Generally, the Metro’s peak-hour trains arrive very frequently as workers — many of them federal employees — shuttle back to Virginia or Maryland. Much like with New York, D.C.’s roads aren’t extensive enough to — and should not — support the auto traffic the thousands of people who work in the District would generate, and so the Metro is a prime necessity during peak hours.

During off-peak hours, though, the service becomes this hybrid mix of a subway and a commuter rale. During rush hour, the red line trains would roll in quite frequently, but as soon as 7 p.m. hit, the headways slowed to 10 minutes. By 9:30, the wait grew to 15 minutes, and the last red line trains passed through Dupont Circle and Metro Center at midnight or shortly thereafter. On other routes, headways can reach 20 minutes as early as 9:30 p.m., and people coming back from Kennedy Center shows, late nights at work or after-dinner movies often grumble about the poor service.

In July of 2008, Matt Johnson at Track Twenty-Nine tackled the issue of the Metro’s hours. The DC subway system, he noted, is one of the first in the nation to close entirely and the first to begin the closing process during the week. It creates, Johnson says, some tension in the area. He wrote:

It would seem on the surface to be essential for the subway to stay open late in Our Nation’s Captial. While it is true that Washington has long held the distinction of being known as an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of town, they don’t exactly roll up the sidewalks at 11:30. They do start rolling up the Metro, though. They start shutting it down at 11:24 every evening Sunday through Thursday.

And while the party-goers and clubbers have the benefit of an extra 3 hours of service on Fridays and Saturdays, this strategy leaves out the idea of equity. After all, it’s not just clubbers who are out after midnight. All of those service workers have to get home somehow, and many of them don’t get off until late. Besides, do we really want to be known as the city that has the first subway to retire each night? Even Baltimore’s Metro starts to close later than WMATA.

In its coverage of yesterday’s WMATA Board Meeting, Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert pondered the same conflict. The debate over closing times, he says, “risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don’t live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool.”

As this debate unfolds in D.C., it certainly allows me to appreciate New York’s system, warts and all. Ours might not look as nice as the Metro’s vaults. It certainly isn’t as clean as D.C.’s system with its draconian enforcement of food and beverage limits. But it keeps running late. Most routes are covered by more than one train so even as, say, B train headways reach 10 or 12 minutes after the evening rush, that a D will show up makes the wait shorter. Even the R train with limited off-peak headways is still supposed to arrive every 12 minutes.

In New York — as in D.C. — too many people work off hours for the subway to shut down. The City that Never Sleeps can’t afford to see its transportation lifeline cut off. That does mean more inconvenient changes for necessary maintenance and a less clean system, but ultimately, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.

Categories : WMATA
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