MARC and Metro trains by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

This is the final post in a three-part series on improving the transit experience in the Washington metro area through enhanced coordination among multiple transit operators. This was a recommendation made in the Greater Washington Partnership’s Blueprint for Regional Mobility, the region’s first CEO-led mobility strategy for the Capital Region, which stretches from Baltimore to Richmond, released in Fall 2018. It was also published by the Greater Washington Partnership. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Transit in the Washington area has a broad geographic reach—more than 80% of residents live within a quarter mile of a transit stop with at least minimal service. But the system is far too fragmented, disjointed, and confusing to reach its full potential. The metro area’s 15% decline in ridership since 2012 shows just how ineffective its transit systems have become at competing with other options, leading to more cars on already congested roads and increased operating costs. Though these structural challenges are daunting, the system can improve.

To reverse these declines and maximize the metro area’s collective investments, Washington area leaders must commit to making transit seamless, regionally integrated, and easy to use. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, regionally integrated services are the work of Verkehrsverbunds (VVs), regional associations of local governments and transit operators.

A recent study of six VV regions found that they have between three and 10 times more public transit trips per resident per year than in the Washington area. The success of these regions in making transit the most competitive choice for a majority of trips and, in the process, reversing declining ridership, provides a useful example for the Washington metro area.

The Washington area needs first-class transit to meet the needs of current and future workers and businesses. To achieve that goal, the Washington area must break out of its current organizational and jurisdictional silos and create a new body empowered to coordinate its separate transit services into a seamless, effective network.

It’s no one’s job to make the Washington area’s transit system seamless

While there are several forums for areawide information sharing and coordination, the Washington area has not empowered any single entity to deliver a seamless transit system across the entire area. This stands in contrast to the VV regions, which deliver “one route, one ticket, one network” (as the Munich VV’s slogan goes) across both urban and suburban jurisdictions.

VVs have been able to deliver these seamless services because the local governments and transit operators hold the belief that they are stronger together than apart. As a result, they collectively, through the VV, created the best customer experience possible through regionwide transit policies, including service and funding levels, fares, ticket prices, marketing plans, and performance standards.

No entity in the Washington metro area has similar responsibility or authority. Critical decisions are made in isolation by individual agencies that may not consider the impact of their actions on all of the area’s residents or the performance of the transit system as a whole. This process naturally leads to a fragmented system that impacts riders’ experience and ability to easily access their destinations.

As discussed in the first post in this series, the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and its committees and subcommittees encourage members — elected officials and staff from around the Washington metro area — to present to the rest of its members and the public on activities that might be relevant to others. But TPB itself has no responsibility for transit operating decisions and cannot compel its members to coordinate their transit decisions or implement any recommendations that may come from a plan.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission is similarly situated, although its coordinating influence is stronger given both its smaller geographic scope and the fact that it controls a portion of Northern Virginia’s transportation funding that its member jurisdictions rely on.

As a regional authority and the largest transit provider in the Washington metro area, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has significant influence with other transit operators. It has led a task force on fare payment and convenes a regular meeting of local jurisdictional staff. WMATA’s board includes representatives from across the metro area, but its authority is limited to issues affecting WMATA. Other transit providers in the metro area have at times chosen to follow WMATA’s lead, such as with SmarTrip. But on other issues, they have gone their own way. WMATA lacks both the authority and a broad enough scope of influence to deliver a coordinated system.

The metro area’s WMATA-funded Bus Transformation Project is in danger of falling victim to the area’s current organizational silos. The draft study makes ambitious recommendations that would position the Washington area to move from a laggard to a national bus leader through targeted improvements to many facets of bus service — many of which were also called for in the Partnership’s Rethinking the Bus issue brief — such as dedicated bus lanes, transit signal priority, and innovative fare policies, among many others.

Increasing coordination and executing changes to improve Metrobus and local bus service, as recommended by the draft study, face daunting implementation risk because action is required by many different agencies, which may or may not all place the same priority on coordinated implementation. Moreover, the study is limited to bus services and does not address either Metrorail or the two commuter rail services (MARC and VRE).

Unlike coordination in the VVs, which is ongoing, consistent, and proactive, coordination in the Washington area is ad hoc and reactive. Each transit provider is accountable for its own service, but no entity is accountable for ensuring high-quality performance of the entire transit network.

The Washington metro area needs a commitment to seamless transit and a new structure to make it happen

Transit use is falling, and this area has no comprehensive plan or coordinated strategy to turn it around. Without coordinated action, Washington area residents will experience increasingly congested roads, longer and more stressful commutes, and a rising cost of doing business. Transit must be a priority solution to these challenges. It must become a customer-centered, competitive, and attractive service that people will want to use.

Hamburg faced declining ridership and poor transit performance in the 1960s and created the first VV to address it. Other regions throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland followed. The VVs made transit more available, cheaper, and more integrated across jurisdictional lines and transit options. By making transit a priority and working together as a region, they created an attractive service that more effectively competes with the private car.

The Washington metro area must do the same. We are calling for the creation of a new regional body empowered to coordinate separate transit services into a seamless network. There are several ways to accomplish this, including creating an entirely new agency or expanding WMATA’s responsibilities. As starting points for consideration, we recommend two options, both led or supported by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) — the Washington area’s most regionally representative entity:

  1. MWCOG could formally create a new body to strategically coordinate transit across the metro area. This body would be separate from the TPB, which focuses on preparing the metro area’s federally required long-term and four-year transportation plans; or
  2. MWCOG could host an independent transit coordinating body similar to the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC), though without the federal and state oversight requirements. This new body may be called a board, committee, or panel, but whatever its name, its members must include high-level officials who can make decisions on behalf of their agencies or jurisdictions.

In either case, funding could be allocated from jurisdictions’ contributions to MWCOG or collected separately to hire the necessary staff.

No matter the structure and location of the new transit coordinating body, it should be empowered with specific responsibilities, including integration of customer-facing elements such as marketing and customer information, fare policy, and fare payments — areas of prime importance when it comes to creating an integrated system. This would also be an appropriate body to take on the recommendations of the Bus Transformation Project.

Change is never easy, and our call to create a new coordinating body will undoubtedly be met with resistance from some. But consider the alternative: if we simply continue with “business as usual,” we can expect ridership to continue falling, as people increasingly opt for easier and more seamless transportation options — while public transport service remains fragmented. Transit will lose riders, require more fare increases and service cuts or larger subsidies, none of which are sustainable.

Last year’s “Metro Now” effort, which successfully garnered dedicated funding for Metrorail, demonstrated what this area can achieve when it aligns to tackle regional challenges. Washington area leaders need a renewed commitment to creating a transit network that is seamless, integrated, and easy to use. Washington area residents need a network that is greater than the sum of its parts and far more competitive than any single jurisdiction could deliver on its own. Creating a VV-like structure in the Washington area is the first step toward creating that network.

Joe McAndrew is the Greater Washington Partnership’s director of transportation policy where he develops, directs and drives all activity relating to the Partnership’s efforts to achieve a regional 21st century transportation ecosystem. McAndrew is a political observer, outdoor recreationist, soccer fiend, bike commuter, and is a resident of Columbia Heights.

Sarah Kline is Principal at SK Solutions LLC, a Fairfax-based consulting firm specializing in public transportation and transit-oriented development. She has nearly two decades of experience working in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, including at the US Senate and WMATA. Among other projects, she provides research and analysis to the Greater Washington Partnership on transit issues.

Ralph Buehler, PhD is Associate Professor in Urban Affairs & Planning at Virginia Tech in Arlington, Virginia.  HIs research has contrasted transport and land-use in Western Europe and North America. He is the author or coauthor of over 65 refereed articles, the book City Cycling (MIT Press), as and reports to governments, NGOs, and companies in the US and abroad. Between 2012 and 2018 he served as chair of the TRB committee on Bicycle Transportation.