Image by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

A Washington Post article published Sunday revealed that Metro leaders say they don't know how to make the system stop bleeding riders, and don't have a plan to bring them back. Not a single board member suggested running more trains, even though there's plenty of evidence that riders want more frequent and reliable service.

Post reporter Faiz Siddiqui writes:

…analysts, riders and policy advocates concluded that one key cause of the agency’s declining ridership is within its control: service. The consultant’s study, part of a $460,000 effort to develop a realistic ridership modeling tool, found the factors “best correlated” to ridership changes were related to service, Metro said.

Metro has reduced rush-hour service on five of six lines from every six minutes to every eight minutes. Midday, evening, and daytime Saturday headways run around 12 minutes, and on Sundays, expect 15-minute daytime waits — and 20 minutes or longer at night.

So the reporters pressed Metro board members about the findings.

…we asked each Metro board member a simple question: Should Metro run more trains?

Some board members pointed to a coming discussion about restoring late-night service — without taking a position; others simply said the agency needs to focus on existing service. Not a single board member would commit to supporting a service increase in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Metro leaders' response provoked a lot of reactions on urbanist Twitter:

Here's what some of our contributors think.

Daniel Warwick says leaders should stop trying to pass the buck:

Ridership dies in 26-minute headways.

I don't deny that ride hailing has a negative impact on metro ridership. Several times I'll take a TNC home from work when I would have taken metro if service was offered later or was actually frequent. I've also taken TNCs with a group of friends when it's comparable in price to take metro. 10 years ago that would have been impossible.

Most USA transit systems face falling ridership, but not all of them and most do not have the deep drop that our region has experienced. Seattle is an example of a metro area with increasing ridership. Why? They're investing in infrastructure and service — especially frequent service.

To fix WMATA our leaders should be striving for best in class, not “it's not our fault.”

Ben Ross says,

This is a governance failure. Metro's objective should be bringing train service — not just the physical equipment — “back to good.”

Instead, a political class that rarely rides transit and is overly responsive to business lobbies seems to care about the tracks but not the riders. It has strangled the operating budget with a 3% cap on tax revenue contributions and launched a contracting-out binge that wastes money and undermines the morale of the workforce.

Edit Board member Joanne Tang adds,

It’s laughable that you can — in the words of Corbett Price — have service that is efficient and reliable if you’re unwilling to do anything beyond acknowledging that the most direct path to increased ridership is more service and more reliable service. I’d like less hand-wringing about making decisions and more action. I agree that this is a huge failure of governance.

Metro can’t control people choosing Uber or Lyft but it can absolutely control the reasons why many people are choosing other modes. Wiedefeld pointed at this, too but it doesn’t track with the notion that the issue is out of his hands. Is he improving service or is this him thinking he’s doing just fine and it’s not his issue if riders aren’t returning? He could commit to something more concretely. The board could, too.

Canaan Merchant points out that we know what to do, but leaders just don't seem to want to do it.

I get hedging by saying “we can't say what the issues are until we study them and find out”. That's fine. But now the studies are out, and you have board members going on record and just ignoring what the recommendations are.

Gray Kimbrough has some suggestions:

What would an actual strategy to reverse this decline look like?

1) More than anything, WMATA must take seriously the need to provide service outside of rush hours. This means providing a decent level of service as a baseline. 20+ minute headways all weekend will never cut it for riders with other options, and more and more riders have other options.

2) Develop strategies to perform necessary maintenance without violating the commitment to providing reasonable service levels. For example, stop single-tracking every line all weekend. Instead, focus resources on a single line; make the work more disruptive to a single line if necessary, but don't disrupt the entire system. Also along these lines, WMATA should be working hard to find better ways to take advantage of the hours that the system is closed. Other rail systems have figured out how to perform maintenance in these limited hours. Investigate their practices and learn from them.

3) Fix relatively minor policies that reduce rider comfort. Work harder (or at all?) to return to automatic train operation, and update riders regularly on progress toward this goal. Stop forcing drivers to delay opening doors on new trains at every stop. Amend future train orders to purchase trains with more doors. Make open gangways work, too. Improve PIDs to better show train arrival times (instead of rolling announcements). Make escalators operate at industry standard speeds, not significantly slower as they do now.

4) Consider stopping or reversing fare increases, especially for off-peak fares. Clearly lay out to the Board and riders the costs (in terms of ridership) of higher fares. If Board members can make the case to their constituencies that increasing their subsidy payments has value, they might actually be willing to do it. Don't make them have to make this case themselves.

5) Expand hours. Along the lines of (2) and (4), WMATA will need to find ways to better perform maintenance and will need to justify the cost of added hours.

Justin Lini says,

We can pick and choose individual items, but the ultimate question for the Board is: Who is actually looking out for the riders? It's no coincidence that WMATA is doing away with its Riders' Advisory Council.

WMATA seems out of touch with the public and is completely disinterested in our needs. We are just abstract “revenue service” to them, rather than people who depend on WMATA for access to livelihoods and basic needs. The fundamental problem is that WMATA has a massive democratic deficit and no one appears to be accountable for anything.

Tracy Loh adds:

In addition to death-spiral length headways, there's the fact that Wiedefeld made the late-night service cut permanent without batting an eye. Are we reckoning with how many riders Metrorail is losing in the evening because folks choose a different mode knowing that the subway won't be there after 11 pm to get them home?

It's all fun and games to have a click-bait headline about how Millennials are killing the Metro, but this is an incredibly slow-blink failure of leadership to acknowledge that running a system for federal workers commuting by subsidy during the peak from suburb to center is the model of the past, and running an polycentric live-work-play system is the model of the future.

David Cranor points out that this is bigger than the Metro board:

While it's right to blame the board, the fact is that this goes beyond them. Where is the Mayor or the County Executives in pushing Metro to do better? Where are the actual elected leaders at the state level? No one really talks about Metro during an election. No one has a vision. I think that's where it starts.

Readers: What do you think?

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Julie Strupp is Greater Greater Washington's Managing Editor. She's a journalist committed to building inclusive, equitable communities and finding solutions. Previously she's written for DCist, Washingtonian, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and others. You can usually find her sparring with her judo club, pedaling around the city, or hanging out on her Columbia Heights stoop.