Image from Tri-Met.

Parking operations have always been a relatively staid and unexciting part of Metro’s operations, but suddenly it’s rife with innovation and some of the best communication with riders anywhere in the organization.

Metro is piloting a secure bike room in the College Park garage, and asked riders for input on how and whether to charge for access. Another pilot will try electronic sensors at Fort Totten’s kiss-and-ride to give real-time occupancy data.

The planning department is sharing this on a blog, which is Metro’s only one. It’s unlikely these posts take much staff time to write, but provide valuable rider feedback and the kind of communication the public is constantly asking for.

The planning and joint development department at WMATA recently took over responsibility for parking. The planners set out aggressive goals for increasing bicycle mode share. Then, they started moving ahead with the secure room in College Park, and posted on the blog about various options for charging.

Should the room be free? Should there be a yearly fee, like $50, and/or a per-day fee, like 15-25¢? Should the payment go on SmarTrip or use a separate card, like Boston does, or be administered by a 3rd party company, like Portland does?

I agree with the people who’ve weighed in so far that the room should be either free or charge a very small per-use charge. As WMATA already noted in its pedestrian and bicycle access study, increasing biking to stations, especially in suburban areas, decreases the demand for parking and saves money in the long run.

On the car side, very little data is available to make decisions about parking capacity needs or prices to charge. Right now, the only data we have is the total number of drivers who pay fares at a given lot per day, but not how early the lots fill up or how much turnover they experience.

Riders in cars also have no way to know if garages are going to be full or have space when they arrive. The Fort Totten pilot is trying these sensors at the small kiss-and-ride lot, and if successful, could expand to other types of parking. Then WMATA would know how full its garages are by hour and day, and riders could get information via smartphones or roadside signs.

PlanItMetro shows how WMATA could quickly catch up to other government agencies in electronic communications. While many DC agencies are using blogs, Twitter and Facebook to develop two-way communication with residents, progress in customer service communication at WMATA has been slow.

As we are seeing with parking and PlanItMetro, it’s totally possible for WMATA to be innovative and move relatively quickly to try out new technology. It’s also totally possible to communicate well. All it takes is some innovative thinking and the ability to break out of old patterns.

Metro has some great people, but they need the opportunity to thrive. They need to be given new responsibilities where they can grow, and despite budget pressures, have the chance to make more money and move up in the organization. Nat Bottigheimer, the head of the planning department, has set a different tone within his part of the organization. Hopefully Richard Sarles will do the same for the rest of WMATA.

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.