One Way D.C. Metro Could Win Back Its Riders

Expanding wireless service is something Metro has to do. It’s also something transit authorities ought to be eager to do.

Image Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

My morning commute takes 18 minutes on a Blue/Orange/Silver Line train, according to D.C. Metrorail timetables. In reality, it runs a lot longer than that: at least 30 minutes, most days. Like many other D.C. transit riders, my frustration with Metro is mounting. And with a world-ending snowstorm looming, my confidence in getting around town at all this weekend is sub-zero.

Paul Wiedefeld, who took over as Metro’s general manager late in November, boarded the Orange Line train on Tuesday to hear his customers’ complaints. It was maybe the worst day of service this season so far. Riders on unusually crowded, singled-tracked trains groused to him about crowding, lateness, and above all, safety.

Wiedefeld’s got his work cut out for him. There’s no easy way to regain riders’ diminishing trust, although telling them that he doesn’t recommend hiking fares or slashing service is a start. Among the myriad problems Metro faces, however, there is one that Wiedefeld should target right away: finishing the job of providing real, working wireless to riders. Improving the system’s underground access would provide a simple fix for both safety and comfort.

In fact, much of this work is already underway. Congress mandated that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority work with wireless providers to expand coverage to Metrorail tunnels and stations years ago. The effort got off to a good start, but the Red Line crash in 2009 forced Metro to address other more pressing safety fixes (as identified by the National Transportation Safety Board). The 2012 deadline set by Congress to finish the wireless project came and went.

Just about one year ago, however, the wireless gap rushed back into focus, after a Metro rider died when a train got caught near L’Enfant Plaza as a tunnel filled with smoke. More than 80 others were sickened in the incident. (The Washington Afro-American reports that a large number of them are now suing Metro.) Clipped, dropped calls to 9-1-1 placed from Metro trains during that emergency were played during House Oversight hearings into the tragedy.

Federal regulators have since taken over safety oversight for the transit agency. Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Transit Administration are imploring WMATA to get cell service running on the trains. Riders can’t report dangerous conditions if they can’t get any bars.

Here’s an opportunity for Wiedefeld to get the fix back on track. Beyond the safety question—which is paramount, of course—it would behoove Metro to identify a problem, set a goal, and accomplish it. And wireless access is one problem that virtually every rider understands. Fixing this kink would make riding safer and riders happier.

For the psychological reasons alone, Wiedefeld should make wireless a priority. Simply put, access to the Internet lowers the costs of waiting, and that’s what commuting underground is: waiting. Public transit riders have an advantage over drivers, because riders can receive and send email, check Slack, scroll their lives away on Twitter—whatever it is. Drivers can listen to the radio or audiobooks, but their options are limited, and drivers (mostly) understand that. But when people who aren’t driving can’t look at Instagram or return important work emails, they may sense this as a burden: a cost.

Now as it happens, I try to read fiction on my 18 to 30-minute Metro ride. When I have a gripping read (Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is changing my world right now), I tend not to notice the delays at all. It’s a cost-saving feature of a tedious commute: Reading a novel is recreational time I’d have to carve out somewhere else in my day. Not so different for a smartphone user messing around online for 20 minutes (and I’m absolutely one of those, too).

So Metro can turn a flaw into a feature by expanding the ways that riders can occupy their time while they’re waiting (and waiting, and waiting). And Metro has to do this work anyway! It’s not an enormous cost savings for riders, but it feels huge if you just really need to see what’s happening in your mentions.

It’s not all Metro’s fault that this project isn’t finished yet. But it’s entirely to Metro’s gain to make it happen. Progress that can be measured in bars is progress you can believe in.

New York is moving aggressively toward expanding wi-fi access to all its subway stations by the end of 2016. With so much of the underground wireless work already done, the case for providing full-blown wi-fi in D.C. isn’t clear cut. Making a good-faith effort to solve a problem that has to be solved, however, might go a long way in boosting riders’ flagging confidence in the agency.

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