Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Why the Dupont Circle Metro's south escalators will close for two-thirds of 2012

December 30, 2011 - 01:02 PM
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Ride them while you can. (Photo: flickr/DCist)

Metro has unveiled brochures, videos, and other PR efforts in an attempt to prevent riders from freaking out over the prospect of no operating escalators at the south entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station. The escalators will be closed for safety reasons starting in February for a period of about eight and a half months, WMATA predicts, as they're being replaced. Earlier this fall, the transit agency mused that it would have to close them for as long as one year. Metro replaced its first escalators in 15 years at the Foggy Bottom station.

Shortly after that Dupont Circle Metro announcement, WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel told me the agency hoped to lower expectations about how long the repairs would potentially take. They wanted, sensibly enough, to control the rider reaction. Say a year initially, then eight and a half months, then complete the job by then or even faster if possible. These new examples of PR outreach continue that trend of preparing Metro riders for the systems' coming inconvenience, now about four weeks away.

How to best make riders calm down? Clear explanation. WMATA offers a video this month that, at the least, can be credited with frankness about the state of the current escalators.

"These escalators have one of the highest fail rates in all of Metro," WMATA project manager Lonnie Murray says in the video. "They also happen to be one of the rarest escalators we have, not only in Metro but around the country."

One of the highest fail rates? No need to tell local Metro riders that. See the rest of the two-minute video with Murray to understand why:

WMATA has devoted a section of its website to the Dupont Circle escalator closing: wmata.com/dupont. You can read a copy of the brochure that Metro will hand out here. Rider frustration is inevitable, especially considering the Circulator won't be changing its route to accommodate the closing, as the Express's Vicky Hallett reported today.

The one bright spot is that Metro does plan to have more escalator mechanics on hand to fix the Dupont Circle north escalators should they break down for any reason ... which is, I imagine, another inevitable problem, given the increased amount of traffic they'll be experiencing for two-thirds of next year. Metro encourages riders to take the north entrance or use the L street entrance to Farragut North.

But can all this good communication really make up for the deeper frustration involved?

In the City Paper's Dec. 22 look back at 2011, assistant editor Alex Baca questioned whether WMATA's communications renaissance, vaunted at the start of summer, really has continued to deliver throughout recent months. I don't share the same doubts, given all the video and press events, but I do see an important point underscored by WMATA chief spokesperson Dan Stessel. He commented on the City Paper post to reaffirm the WMATA communications strategy and parenthetically offers another thought:

"It's also important to resist the temptation to look for communication solutions to deeper problems," Stessel writes.

Absolutely correct. I've noted before how WMATA sees big fixes in better communication. It's a vital dimension to controlling rider and media reaction but remains only one dimension among many.  At the end of the day, the steady stream of tweets, videos, brochures, press releases, and interviews are only as good as the system behind them.

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