Can a Rider’s Union save the WMATA from going underground?


The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) opened its car doors on March 27th, 1976.  This coincidentally is the last time a majority of its trains were updated.  With broken down escalators at almost every station, trains that just fail to arrive, and overcrowded commutes, riders don’t have to look hard for the shortcomings of the WMATA.

    2015 has been a trying year for the WMATA; starting off with the tragic death of a rider due to a car filling with smoke and the madness that comes from single tracking disrupting weekends and evenings all year round. Public transportation has the opportunity to cut down the traffic on the roads and the pollution in the air, all while making citizens lives easier by taking them from point A to point B, but the WMATA has found a way to make it more of a chore than a convenience. Loyal riders have found themselves buying cars, doing anything to avoid having to wait for delayed trains only to then be packed in like sardines.  After 40 years since Metro’s opening day, riders are banning together and saying enough is enough, someone needs to stand up for the riders.  

    To go deeper into the complaints that riders have, there are some serious safety concerns when it comes to riding Metro.  For riders that are in a wheelchair, it is sometimes impossible to get on or off the car safely because it isn’t level with the platform.  Smoke incidents are happening all the time.  It seems there is an escalator or elevator out at every station, and when it comes to the very long escalators, that poses a serious health threat expecting riders to walk all the way up.  And then there are the administrative issues.  There are trains that never come and if you rely on the Metro App you will find that bus schedules are never accurate, and that buses often just disappear.  “It has come to the point that if you have to be somewhere on time, you don’t take Metro! It’s too unpredictable,” said an American University student we talked to at the Tenleytown Station.  


    Let’s give a little insight to how WMATA is set up, and how the Rider’s Union fits in.  There is a General Manager, a board of directors, inspector general, the whole bit.  All people who, if we had to guess, don’t ride Metro.  Some of the Board responsibilities include “policy, financial direction, oversight and WMATA’s relationship with its customers, jurisdictional partner and signatories,” according to the Board of Directors bylaws.  This Board essentially fell to pieces earlier in 2015.  The General Manager had to step down, and the Federal government took over because of how badly WMATA was being managed.  Another part of the WMATA office is the Rider’s Advisory Council that was established in 2005.  This council’s purpose is to serve as a connection to the riders.  Meetings are open to the public and serve as a forum to discuss rider’s needs.  Unfortunately, this council hasn’t worked as planned.  On average less than 10 people go to the meetings.  Across the board, Metro has fallen short, making way for the Rider’s Union.  The Rider’s Union mission statement captures what they hope to do for riders.  It “represents the interests of the riders of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s bus, rail, and Metro Access services…operates on a democratic and consensus-driven basis, and its actions are intended to benefit all WMATA riders.”       

    Ashley Robbins, a transit consultant and principal figure in the Rider’s Union, stated that “while the WMATA is addressing the issues of communication, service, infrastructure and  reliability, it needs to be transparent about what riders should expect”. Although Robbins recognized the Rider’s Advisory Council and has met with them on occasion, she suggested that “its presence hasn’t been felt by riders”. It seems to act more as a focus group that presents the WMATA Board with issues, whereas the Riders’ Union is looking to recommend changes and push for specific policy goals that it would like to see implemented. Transit authorities across the country, including in New York and Boston, are very active in publicizing all the work they do. The Rider’s Union in Washington DC is hoping to follow suit by pushing the WMATA to communicate better.  The Union has been very successful at using social media, for promoting their own events as well as official WMATA board events that riders should attend.  They have the upper hand when it comes to social media.    

    When talking about the goals of the Rider’s Union, Robbins says it all boils down to growing their organization, and empowering riders.  By working together, the WMATA Board and Rider’s Union can achieve the common goal of happy Metro riders.  Only time will tell if Metro will be willing to listen to a union organized by one of their fiercest critics, habitual riders.