Periodic announcements on Metro buses urge riders to contact authorities if they see something suspicious, but how many people know the phone number for the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD)?

This is a sign that was developed in 2007 at the urging of the Riders’ Advisory Council, says Dennis Jaffe in a letter from the Sierra Club yesterday. However, the sign was never posted in trains or buses.

Jaffe notes that in several recent incidents, riders didn’t know how to contact MTPD. When two riders were recently trapped in Cheverly Metro after the station manager mistakenly closed up before the last train of the night, they called 911 and the county police, not MTPD. They originally tried the Metro phone number, but got trapped in a phone tree and ended up at a recording telling them to call back during the day.

At a December 2006 meeting of the RAC, Jaffe recounts, “Metro Transit Police Department Lt. Brian Heanue indicated that the vast majority of reports received by the police department come from Metro staff to whom the public submits information, rather than from the public directly. Lt. Heanue also indicated that the Department would welcome receiving more reports directly from the public.”

After that meeting, WMATA developed the above sign, but it didn’t get posted. Why? Jaffe speculates, “One possible reason for Metro’s inaction is the ongoing debate over how many phone numbers Metro should provide for the public to contact the agency.”

Currently, WMATA’s policy is that there should be only a single phone number for riders to contact it about anything. That centralizes the process, which is an understandable impulse from an administrative standpoint, but it reduces the value to riders.

Photo from WMATA.

For example, the NextBus discs give the general customer service phone number, not a NextBus-specific phone. The first time I called, it said “say the service you want,” so I named the bus line, not realizing that this was a general phone number. You have to say “NextBus.” Why force people to go to that extra work? When I give a link to a page on, I can link right to it. I don’t have to tell people how to navigate from the home page.

Maybe some people will call the NextBus number, or the MTPD number, really wanting something else. But if all the numbers go to the same IVR system, just with different starting points, the initial prompt could easily say something like, “Welcome to NextBus for Metrobus. Say the name of the route or enter a stop number. If you want other Metro services, say ‘main menu.’” The MTPD number could do something similar.

As Dennis has noted, it’s not just on the phone where WMATA over-centralizes customer service in a way that makes it difficult for riders to report problems. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to presentations touting the lack of complaints as evidence that things are working well when they actually reflect the difficulty of giving feedback. Accurate information might lead to a short-term uptick in reported problems, but that will only better reflect reality, and better help WMATA staff do their jobs and prioritize resources.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.