Over the last week, as I was dealing with DC’s creaking Metro rail system (aka ‘the Metro’), I thought to myself, “I wonder how many of the fuckers charged with the Metro’s oversight actually use it?” Related to that scintillating insight, we bring you this story about Houston’s Metro (boldface mine):
“There are way too many people working on transit who don’t actually ride transit,” he says. “If you’re going to be making decisions about transit, you really need to know what it’s actually like. Not what it’s like in theory, but what it’s actually like. ”
The problem is familiar to transit leadership across the country. In August, a San Francisco Examiner op-ed challenged the people who run Muni to “actually ride Muni.” Last year, an analysis of Chicago’s CTA found that the board chair rode the system only 18 times in 2012, and a Washington Post survey found many D.C. Metro board members either couldn’t or wouldn’t “name the exact bus lines or rail stops they used regularly.” In 2008, the vice chair of New York’s MTA board famously asked: “Why should I ride and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?”
Such a practice would be unimaginable in private industries—think of an Apple employee using a PC—and Spieler thinks the same should go for public transportation. The importance of service frequency, or rather the immense frustration of infrequency, is hard to grasp for someone whose car is always ready and waiting. The mindset that agencies should only care about customers when they’re on a transit vehicle, but not during their walk to the station, is also an artifact of inexperience, he says….
Metro cemented this new leadership culture by establishing a policy that required senior management to ride the system at least 40 times a month. Spieler believes all city agencies and transit boards and even design firms should self-impose similar mandates. That’s not just to improve the system; it’s also a credibility thing, both among lower-level staff and the public. Spieler recalls a time when he introduced himself to a bus rider and got the following response: “A board member on a bus? I thought you only did this for photo opps.”
Not only are the D.C. Metro board members keeping quiet, but it would appear, based on their biographies, that most of them aren’t using the Metro at all. As the Atlantic article notes, it’s really important to use the system on a regular basis. You discover all sorts of quirks, like being told that the Dupont Circle up escalators at the South exit (where there are no elevators either) are broken (‘out of order’ seems too civil) only after you pass through the gates. This sounds only mildly annoying until one realizes that these escalators are 188 feet long (319 steps). I usually walk up the escalator anyway (though it’s a lot harder when they’re not moving), but I’ve seen middle-aged and elderly people have real difficulty.
Board members who had to experience this might give a damn.