Photo by nj dodge on Flickr.

What should riders expect from Metro? And what can Metro actually deliver? For the past several months, the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council has been working on a customer pledge that can set high expectations for WMATA while acknowledging its operational limitations.

Most transit agencies do not have customer pledges, but the ones that exist are often vague, lack concrete benchmarks, or talk about goals rather than promises. The RAC wants a pledge that is easy to understand and meaningful to Metro riders, but one that Metro can actually deliver on. We want something better.

As the RAC has quickly discovered, creating something better is not an easy task. Metro’s broad range of transit services, amazingly diverse clientele, and tight operational margins make the creation of a meaningful pledge a complicated proposition. It will be impossible to satisfy everyone.

With this in mind, the RAC is attempting to focus on the most important things that Metro riders need and want. After that comes the much harder task of attaching concrete metrics that riders will accept and Metro can adhere to. Finally, the RAC is also trying to create a pledge that is easily digestible and understandable to non-wonks.

Several common themes are emerging, and a consensus seems to be forming around use of these themes in the draft pledge. Here they are, in no particular order:

Safety. Safety has to be everyone’s number one priority. A well-maintained system is the basic threshold for any mode of transit. Metro’s historical track record here is not inspiring, and an ongoing string of breakdowns and derailments isn’t helping to restore anyone’s confidence.

A customer pledge can only go so far in bridging that credibility gap, but it can be a first step. The problem is attaching a metric. The only real acceptable metric, of course, is no accidents or incidents. Pledging that Metro will be 99% accident free is not reassuring at all. Perhaps this is why Metro’s own scorecard measures injury rates rather than trying to quantify equipment safety standards.

Frequency and Reliability. Riders depend on Metro to offer service that is convenient and dependable, but is there a system-wide standard that customers will accept and that Metro can actually deliver? Frequency of service varies widely, from two-minute breaks between rush hour trains to hour-long gaps between airport-bound buses.

A one size fits all solution seems impossible. An additional complicating factor comes with track work and other scheduled delays. This point needs to be as concrete as possible, but formulating a realistic standard that everyone can understand is difficult.

Incident Management. When things fall apart (as they inevitably do), riders need Metro to provide timely and useful information, even when that information is incomplete or preliminary. Despite the many avenues for informing its customers about what’s going on, Metro fails to consistently deliver.

Metro has the capability to release information almost instantaneously to a broad spectrum of riders. It’s just a matter of calculating the minimum amount of time between the outbreak of a problem and when customers expect to be told what’s going on. My personal break point is two minutes, with updates every five minutes afterward, but some people are more patient than others.

Security. Despite the fact that crime rates on Metro are often lower than those in the communities it serves, riders have heightened expectations of what Metro can and should do to keep them safe. Metro can realistically pledge to be vigilant and responsive to crime, but it cannot pledge to eliminate crime or even keep it at a certain level. The most realistic pledge may be for Metro to respond quickly and deal with victims courteously and respectfully.

Customer Service. Riders want to be heard, and even more they want Metro to respond and act. Metro’s current “customer comment rate” metric is an inadequate standard, as it excludes social media and interactions with Metro employees in the field. Even more, it fails to track response times and satisfaction with those responses.

A pledge item here should focus on responding quickly, effectively, and with courtesy. “We got your message” isn’t enough. Customers need something more concrete than that. Squaring responses to official inquiries versus tweets or other indirect ways of communication may be hard to compress into a single standard, but it can be done.

We have also looked at other themes, like transparency, stewardship of public resources, and use of data. However, many of these have less to do with the direct rider experience and more with how Metro is run. While these are important public interests, they do not directly relate to the rider experience and therefore have made the RAC’s shortlist so far. The RAC’s focus is on what riders expect when they get on a bus, train, or MetroAccess vehicle.

Knowing the limitations of what Metro can deliver and the high expectations of riders, how would you formulate a customer pledge on these themes?

Ben Ball is the Chair of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, where he represents the District of Columbia. He is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Department of Homeland Security, where he works on immigration policy issues. All views posted here are his own and not the opinions of his employer. A recovering Foreign Service Officer, Ben has lived in Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia and now lives in LeDroit Park.