Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Shaken by an earthquake, people realized they loved Metro

November 21, 2011 - 03:40 PM
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Offloaded after the earthquake. (Photo: John Hendel)

I was glancing through Metro's third quarter Vital Signs report, released this November, and observed an eye-catching statistic:

Customer commendation and complaint rates reflected Metro’s handling of the August 23rd earthquake with a 50% increase in rail commendations that month and Metrobus challenges with on-time service resulting in a notable spike in complaints in September.

A 50% increase in rail commendations, you say?

I guess all WMATA needed was an earthquake to make people pause and praise the transit agency. As you recall, that August week was breathtaking for commuters, with an earthquake striking halfway through the week and the storm that was Irene striking a couple days later. Two natural disasters occurred and although there was the occasional moment or two of chaos, WMATA engaged in track inspections, sandbag distribution, and all other necessary methods and experienced shockingly smooth service, all while live-tweeting and maintaining an openness about what had happened.

So why then, I wonder, did the suicide of a 39-year-old McLean man at Clarendon in October provoke such a different response both from Metro and from its riders? People actually took the time to commend Metro after the earthquake, we know, and I would be surprised if the suicide didn't cause a spike in complaints when the October data is released. I wonder because of how much WMATA paused in reflection after the Clarendon suicide. How could the transit agency have handled things better, people wondered, as massive delays hit the system. Consensus quickly suggested that Metro handled the suicide terribly, that there were new doubts about how WMATA would be able to handle anything. Consider The Examiner headline about the aftermath: "Metro says it lacks detailed emergency plans." Or the Post's: "Metro scrutinized over policies for handling emergencies and getting riders on their way." But natural disasters and suicide are both unexpected interruptions in service. Why so much praise for one and so much ire regarding the other? Neither the natural disasters nor the suicide provided completely smooth commutes ... nor were either botched entirely.

Whatever the reasons, these impressions of how Metro reacted have calcified over time. Could the difference in reaction come, in part, from the difference of interruption type? People automatically sympathize with earthquakes and hurricanes, I suspect; those are clearly natural disasters that people know are huge in scope. They see how the disasters affect the roads and city structures. Expectations lower, so a functioning Metro seems like magic. That Clarendon suicide, on the other hand, was a less sympathetic crisis (much like "sick customers") and only affected Metro.

That said — beyond issues of sympathy, the Clarendon situation did hold some serious delays, and I can understand why there was commuter dismay. It's only right and proper that WMATA paused and wondered how the agency should have or could have handled the moments better.

One small point that also caught my eye was that in assessing commendations and complaints, WMATA sees the issues not so much as mechanical, functional problems so much as communication ones. When speaking of rider satisfaction, the Vital Signs report points to little about the escalators or other operational issues. It points to the seven months Metro Forward had been live, about video clips, about the SmarTrip feature, about meetings with riders and in focus groups, about how "Metro will continue to reach out to customers and stakeholders through a variety of media, both traditional and new, to keep them informed and to facilitate smooth travel on all modes of transportation Metro provides." What we're primarily talking about is, speaking broadly, the general mood of all you Metro commuters out there and not so much what Metro is but how it's managing to make you feel.

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