With recent coverage of the Metro budget battles reaching a boiling point, the attempts to limit overnight weekend rail service, and the dysfunctional state of escalators, it is the perfect time to submit to the general public a report card of the entire system before sparks fly and the wrong decisions are made. Having lived in two of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, New York and Chicago, and having had the privilege to experience the public transit system in Amsterdam, Bangkok, Barcelona, Boston, Brussels, Detroit, Dubai, Dublin, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Lisbon, London, Melbourne, Milan, Paris, Philadelphia, Prague, San Francisco, Seattle, Sydney, Vienna, and Zurich, it goes without saying that this rating will be unbiased and full of detail and insights.
First and foremost, the public transit network must cover a significant area of the city or cities served, including adjacent suburbs or adjoining subdivisions. For the most part, the DC metro system meets this requirement successfully. Its rail lines provide service in the Washington, DC area, especially the popular visitor attractions and destinations, and to a good portion of Maryland, namely Montgomery County, and adequately to Virginia, Arlington and Alexandria to be exact. In the same token, its bus lines cover a larger portion of the region, making pivotal connections with Ride On and ART companies that serve Maryland and Virginia respectively. Although the DC system may not be as extensive as the ones found in New York City and London, it does meet the needs of commuters who may reside over an hour or more from their lines of employment in the District. In fact, the DC Metro system would receive higher marks if their rail lines also connected to Dulles and BWI Airports, as do most systems of the aforementioned cities. GRADE: B
Second, the system must be reliable, especially in terms of getting from point A to point B quickly and most efficiently. Needless to say, during rush hour periods, most systems do an excellent job of providing timely service, which must be understood in the context of existing capacity and infrastructure conditions. The DC Metro rail system does offer its full fleet of train cars for all of its lines, and even spaces them two to five minutes apart. Unlike some other cities, such as Tokyo where designated station employees physically push passengers into the cars, the DC system prides itself on having train operators who emphasize courtesy and common sense as the best solutions to efficient service, thereby creating a usually seamless operation during these times.
However, unlike Chicago’s CTA system that rolls out express and regular buses in very close succession, the DC Metrobus system leaves much less to be desired. Even during the peak of rush hour, buses are running from 12 minutes upwards to thirty minutes apart. By any standard, this is unacceptable. For example, bus routes that serve the Georgetown community should have a schedule that looks more like its rail counterparts, especially since waiting 20 minutes for a bus (e.g. #31, #32, #36) that is packed to the brim upon arrival is unnerving and ridiculous.
We all understand the issues associated with road congestion, especially its contributions to global warming, but enough is enough! The DC Metrobus system needs to reorganize its schedules and improve its routes in order to meet increased demand at all hours of operation, especially during the morning and afternoon rush periods. GRADE: B-
Next, there is cleanliness and overall environmental conditions. Along this line, nobody is arguing for professional cleaning services to steamwash the floors and cleanse every rail car and bus vehicle in the system, but paying customers deserve more in the way of hygienic mass transit. Given this caveat, it is fair to say that most of the systems in large metropolitan areas, which serve diverse neighborhoods with people from all walks of life, will not have trains and buses that are squeaky clean and in new condition. In New York and Chicago, seats are typically dirty, glass surfaces are usually defaced, food and other forms of debris constantly linger on the floor, and stations are in dire need of makeovers.
While no one is arguing for trains and buses made by Martha Stewart, more cities should take a page from our Asian counterparts, in terms of frequent and reliable service, very good conditions on buses and trains, and stations and shelters that would pass any cleanliness check. For example, in Hong Kong, the train cars are spacious, the seats are comfortable and clean, and the platforms and station houses are tended to several times during the day. For the DC system, the rail cars are generally clean, with seats in good condition, floors adequate, and handrails virtually spotless. The same goes for its bus fleet, especially its New Flyer buses. The seats are comfortable and roomy, the floors are spotless, and there is hardly any debris on the floor. Unfortunately, the existence of clean vehicles may be due to the large time gaps in service rather than a true desire to properly maintain the fleet! GRADE: A-
Finally, there is the safety issue, which is prevalent in any discussion about mass public transportation. Although city government has the onus when it comes to maintaining law and order in all parts of town, the managers and supervisors of transit systems can do their part to keep every passenger safe when boarding and upon arrival. For the DC Metrorail system, the primary concern is lighting. Is this a stylistic design flaw? The lighting on the platform and in the station is dim at best, with selected areas that may have additional lighting. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a scene taken from the movie Casablanca.
Besides lighting, there is the role of the station manager. In addition to dispensing important information about the system and the city, the manager can also become a more visible person in the station, especially during the early morning and late evening hours. Is there a requirement that the person be inside the office most of the time he or she is on duty?
Another improvement comes in the way of building more bus shelters throughout the system. Bus shelters shield the riders from inclement weather and possibly from activities that may occur in the darkness. Taking it a step farther, security cameras and emergency contact devices need to be implemented into the overall design of these shelters as well as for stations and on buses and trains. The point is to give the passenger a sense of comfort and ease when riding a form of transportation shared by the general public. GRADE: C
After this initial evaluation of the DC Metro system, there is clearly an urgent need for changes and improvements in both bus and rail service in order to establish the qualities of reliability, frequency, comfort, cleanliness, and safety essential for public transit in the twenty-first century. Based on the individual grades above, the DC system as a whole deserves a “B,” since it meets most of the requirements for a stable and functioning public transportation network, but needs to make critical choices to move itself forward and on the right track!
OVERALL GRADE: B