Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Archive for April 2012

A joyful noise comes to WMATA

April 30, 2012 - 08:44 AM
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(Photo: flickr/mllerustad)

How would you react if a choir of Metro riders asked you to praise Lord Jesus? Apparently commuters encountered a crowded train full of singers not long ago based on a recently uploaded video clip. This Christian choir offers its fair share of harmony and even a little handclapping.

But is the song really welcome or appropriate in such a venue? Such music is not entirely new. One Metro rider has achieved notoriety in recent years for his Christmas carols. Watch the clip below.

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A look at sidewalk cafes in downtown D.C., by the numbers

April 27, 2012 - 01:52 PM
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(Photo: Downtown BID)

Who doesn't love a good sidewalk cafe? These spots have risen significantly in recent years and mark the sort of pedestrian life that smart-growth transportation planners adore. What they promote is circulation, a casual public life outside of our doors. Strolling is good for business, not to mention health, community, and public safety. The city recognizes these virtues in its streetscaping, tree, and pedestrian safety efforts.

Let's examine how sidewalk cafes have changed downtown from 2010 to 2011. The chart above shows that the smaller ones, capable of seating anywhere from 1 to 30 seats, all grew in number. The bigger categories of sidewalk cafe, which seat in the 31-50+ range, held steady in number or slightly shrank, which is no surprise considering the price of retail downtown. That much sidewalk space, I'm sure, costs these cafes some serious cash. The Downtown Business Improvement District released its annual report for 2011 this spring, which includes the numbers on sidewalk cafes, and discussed its findings this past Tuesday at the Newseum. "Enhancing the physical environment and the pedestrian experience contributes greatly to the quality of life in Downtown," the report notes on the page of this chart. Any business who wants to set up the outdoor seating has to pay the District Department of Transportation $260 for a permit and receive approval. The Downtown BID's territory played host to 136 sidewalk cafes overall in 2011, up from 123 in 2010.

What's most remarkable is that D.C.'s first sidewalk cafe only opened half a century earlier. The Post recalled the opening last fall and described the fear these sidewalk cafes provoked back in 1961. A sample concern? "Pedestrians might brush against patrons, resulting in a punch in the nose." The horror! Now the city is estimated to have more than 450 of the fine establishments, prime for a warm spring day.

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Unfortunate calculations of streetcar math

April 27, 2012 - 12:02 PM
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(Photo: DDOT)

The District has issued a Notice to Proceed to Oregon Iron Works, Inc. to build the remaining two of five streetcars slated for the 2.2-mile H Street/Benning Road Line scheduled to open some time next year and run from Union Station to Oklahoma Avenue. The 2013 launch date is, recall, years later than originally anticipated. The District Department of Transportation first announced the selection of Oregon Iron Works 22 days ago, but the D.C. Council needed to approve the contract. The dates reinforce the possibility that we'll be seeing the H Street line start not in summer of 2013 as planned but in early fall.

Why? The manufacturer has to deliver the streetcar within 545 days of the Notice to Proceed. Look at your calendar, and a little math will place that around mid-October 2013.

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Walk Score ranks D.C. as one of America's top cities for transit

April 27, 2012 - 09:46 AM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Walk Score is usually better known for its pedestrian analyses about walkability, but this week, the company released a list of the best cities for public transportation, with a specific focus on about 25 based on size. D.C. placed at number four with a Transit Score of 69 of 100 (which translates as "good transit"). Who beat us? New York, San Francisco, and Boston, respectively, with Transit Scores of 81, 80, and 74. Baltimore also did well — it's number nine with a score of 57.

And how does Walk Score calculate a transit paradise versus not? The company "sum[s] the value of all of the nearby routes," it explains. "The value of a route is defined as the service level (frequency per week) multiplied by the mode weight (heavy/light rail is weighted 2X, ferry/cable car/other are 1.5X, and bus is 1X) multiplied by a distance penalty." Raw scores were then normalized by looking at the averages of five cities with full transit data to create a range of 0 to 100.  

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The WMATA fare hike discussions all come down to MetroAccess

April 26, 2012 - 01:38 PM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Today MetroAccess riders testified before the WMATA Board of Directors for an hour objecting to how WMATA plans to hike and structure its fares starting this coming July. The concerns echoed the ones voiced at WMATA's public hearings on fare increases months earlier. Today they again reached the highest Metro authorities themselves and while they stirred some positive engagement and discussion, the appeals ultimately stopped nothing.

The message was clear — don't raise fares. The riders shared a variety of troubling stories about their commuting struggles and financial difficulties. The fare hikes are detailed here and while they don't raise MetroAccess maximum fares any higher than the $7 they currently are, the adjustments to rail and bus fares mean that MetroAccess riders will likely pay more for individual trips (as of February, 2011: "MetroAccess fare is twice the equivalent fixed route SmarTrip ® fare based on fastest trip"). Bus fares will rise 10 cents and rail will rise by a few cents across a variety of peak and off-peak factors. Parking fares will rise by 25 cents. Of WMATA's three transportation services — the rail of Metrorail, the bus of Metrobus, and the disability paratransit service of MetroAccess — the most passionate riders clearly belong to MetroAccess. The paratransit service was formed in 1994, carries about 2.3 million passengers annually in a fleet of 600 vehicles, and today they showed themselves to, as in recent months, be the first and loudest to speak up about the state of their service.

"We have fixed incomes, we have high rents to pay," MetroAccess rider Josephine Johnson told WMATA. "If you would just be compassionate ... give us a decent break and do not raise the fares… Mother’s Day is coming up, and a lot of us would like to go to church. But we can’t go to church because the fares are so high.”

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Doubts emerge about D.C.'s ability to execute transportation projects

April 26, 2012 - 11:10 AM
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(Photo: flickr/talkingdc)

The D.C. Council worries that the District Department of Transportation may be moving forward with not exactly breathtaking speed. The feared sluggishness stands in stark contrast to the ambitious sustainability vision that Mayor Vince Gray outlined recently, which called for three of every four trips to be car-free in 20 years. The Council has worried over the progress with streetcar contracts before, and now faces pressure of an approaching deadline — the first 2.5-mile line is expected to begin next year. Yesterday talk of delays emerged again, as Councilmember Tommy Wells pointed out an instance in which the department received bids back in October and even now, seven months later, haven't secured a contract.

"We haven’t even been able to award the contract!" Wells said to DDOT Director Terry Bellamy yesterday in a hearing on the department's 2013 budget.

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Metro disaster? WMATA website now shows updates in bright red

April 26, 2012 - 09:15 AM
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(Photo: WMATA)

This past week is bad for Metro riders — a revelation that WMATA hadn't maintained its supply of 46 defibrillators as a rider died of a heart attack and more than a 100 new ones sat in storage; a "minor" derailment of a Metro train in Northern Virginia; and today, the Metro Board votes on a fare hike that'll hit us to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars a day collectively. Transit knows how to hit us where it hurts.

But when Metro derailed a train a little after 7 p.m. at Rosslyn two days ago — on a train with 1,000 riders aboard — I noticed one new feature about how Metro communicates disaster. WMATA kept releasing press releases about the state of the derailment throughout the evening but the transit agency also featured a new red alert banner over the rotating images in the center of the page. I liked seeing the new way of displaying problem updates. Metro has struck a delicate balance in how it showcases information on its homepage, with an instinct to promote its positive sides publicly while still acknowledging problems (like with the AEDs — the agency submitted a press release on the topic but you better believe it didn't show off the release in its homepage news box of six cherry-picked stories. All those tend to focus on track work, Rush+, and more servicey dimensions of Metro service). WMATA has also attempted to create new channels for updating riders of commuting problems with its MetroAlerts system in recent months.

But now we've got the Breaking News Metro Problems Banner. Let's hope we don't have to see it too often.

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D.C. wants three out of every four trips car-free in 20 years

April 25, 2012 - 09:24 AM
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(Photo: Office of the Mayor)

Mayor Vince Gray unveiled details of his Sustainable D.C. plan yesterday in conjunction with a ribbon-cutting for the latest section of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. Gray's sustainability plans include some impressive long-range transportation plans — the city's goal for 2032, his office writes, imagines "at least 75% of all trips originating in the city will be by walking, biking, transit, or other clean transportation alternative."

Jesus Christ, talk about a dream of smart growth, no? The mayor's vision focuses on improving pedestrian life, a reliable WMATA system of buses and rails, increased biking supported by Capital Bikeshare (18,000 members now) and expanded infrastructure, and the possibilities inherent in a completed 37-mile streetcar network, the first line of which is expected to open next year. Short term plans include completing more than 80 miles of bike lanes (we have about 55 now), "prioritizing east of the Anacostia River, and completing the Metropolitan Branch Trail," and to "reduce building parking minimums and increase the availability of on-street parking through citywide performance parking districts." Mayor Gray even wore the green bike pin popularized by Congressman Earl Blumenauer and the Bike Caucus. Within 20 years, the city wants three out of every four trips to be car-free.

Is such a dream possible?

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Report those potholes! We're in the midst of Potholepalooza

April 24, 2012 - 12:10 PM
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(Photo: DDOT)

Here's your public service reminder to report any obnoxious potholes you see on D.C. roads to the government. The District government formally launched its fourth annual Potholepalooza on April 17, and officials say they'll abolish your pothole within 48 hours.

How to report potholes? Call 311. Use the 311 mobile app. Check out the Potholepalooza Facebook page. E-mail potholepalooza@dc.gov. Tweet at @DDOTDC. File the pothole online.

One new feature of Potholepalooza IV is a live map of reported and fixed potholes, featured above. Last year the city knocked out more than 5,000. Keep an eye on this map ... the anti-pothole campaign will run through May 17! Now's the time to report, for the sake of drivers and bicyclists everywhere.

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Transit secret: WMATA employees eat and drink on the Metro

April 24, 2012 - 10:02 AM
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(Photo: Jenny Rogers)

Metro forbids its riders from consuming any food or drink onto the system and has for years. It's one of the reasons we don't have quite so many rats on our system as New York City does. One of last summer's biggest coups was when WMATA relented and allowed — during a blisteringly hot day — its riders to bring on and drink from simple bottles of water. Of water! Other items like coffee and food have always remained completely off limits. Perhaps you've seen the recent WMATA ads against coffee? WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel confirms that it's the first in a series of anti-eating and drinking campaigns on the transit system set to run through the summer.

But what about WMATA staff? Should they, too, be forbidden a cup of coffee or a snack on a long work shift?

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WMATA's new Rush+ is underfoot, literally

April 23, 2012 - 11:59 AM
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(Photo: WMATA)

Metro's Rush+ awareness barrage continues. If all the line-specific videos and decorated railcars and press releases didn't wow you, the transit agency has added Rush+ graphics to the floors of Gallery Place-Chinatown and Metro Center stations, two of the busier transfer points in all of Washington, D.C. Let it be known that the new rush hour schedule of trains is on the way June 18. And keep your eyes on the ground, commuters!

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: WMATA)

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Park Police ticket bicyclists for biking past stop signs

April 23, 2012 - 09:58 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Last week when venturing to the National Park Service headquarters at 1100 Ohio Drive SW, down around the East Potomac Park and Tidal Basin and Hains Point, I noticed traffic signs that explicitly demand that bicyclists follow the traffic law. Underneath one stop sign was the clear dictate — BICYCLISTS MUST STOP AT STOP SIGNS. In the distance, an electronic sign flashed another message: BICYCLISTS MUST OBEY TRAFFIC LAWS. The signs, from what I can tell, are new. Bikes were a constant presence in the leafy park territory here.

The signs are no joke. Park Police are allegedly ticketing bicyclists who imagine themselves above the starkly stated law.

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When heart attacks strike, what should riders expect of Metro?

April 20, 2012 - 03:01 PM
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(Photo: Jay Westcott)

This week, a 51-year-old man died on WMATA from a Yellow Line heart attack, and Metro was unable to attempt to save him with one of its 46 automated external defibrillators (AEDs) because the batteries were dead.

WMATA immediately responded to the criticism and ominous thought ("Wait, could Metro have saved his life if their AEDs worked?") by announcing the transit agency would check all defibrillators within 24 hours and "complete the work it has underway to place AEDs at all station kiosks, including replacing older existing models with state-of-the-art devices" by April 30. WMATA has confirmed they checked out the AEDs by Friday morning. It's a shame that a death is what prompted the response, in large part because these projects with AEDs have been ongoing for years. In the United States, meanwhile, about 785,000 people will experience a first heart attack in a given year, according to the American Heart Association, and about 470,000 will have a recurrent heart attack. An American dies from one about once a minute. What are the real circumstances surrounding transit defibrillators? Should the batteries be working? Who was responsible? Do other transit agencies keep much of a stock of AEDs?

Let's examine.

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Metro explains Rush+ in video form

April 20, 2012 - 09:04 AM
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(Photo: WMATA)

Have you reached your Rush+ saturation point yet? WMATA will begin the new train rush-hour pattern on June 18 and has begun pulling out every trick in the book to make you pay attention. The transit agency even decorated 12 railcars with Rush+ material and held a Twitter contest to get riders to snap photos of the cars. Now comes the video assault, as perhaps you know from the three-in-a-row set of press releases WMATA couldn't help from sending out about it yesterday afternoon.

But let's cut to the chase — Rush+ ... the video!

This two-minute video is apparently the first among many, with others planned for specific Metro lines. Given all the changes of Rush+, videos seem like a wise enough move. Because Rush+ is not always intuitive or easy to understand when you first hear about how the trains will shift. Trains begin moving on lines they don't normally move on in rush hour now, and you have to pay extra attention to end destinations if you want to properly use the transit. What better way to show this than through dynamic visuals? I like that Metro takes us down to the map level and explains how the new Metro map will translate into new service.

The present saturation of Rush+, however tiresome now, may save WMATA a lot of grief and confusion when the new service actually launches.

Update, 2:28 p.m.: Check out WMATA's Rush Plus landing page to get some of the Metro line-specific videos now. The interactive Rush+ map allows people to click on different lines to bring up their specific commuting information. My favorite part? How cheerful the WMATA video voice manages to sound in the one bit of downer news: "Some may wait up to six minutes longer for a Blue Line train." But mostly WMATA tries to emphasize the positive ways in which it will "improve service for nearly 110,000 customers on the Green, Yellow, Blue and Orange lines." Naturally.

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WMATA's challenges go beyond age and deferred maintenance

April 19, 2012 - 12:21 PM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Brandon Miller is one tired Metro commuter, one among the 700,000 who take to the rails every day. A little over two weeks ago, Miller entered the Twinbrook Metro station and encountered a problem, one that became so frustrating and emblematic of his experiences with transit that he took to Tumblr with a long screed about what he calls "the most pathetic transit system in the country."

Here's what happened at Twinbrook:

The other evening I was trying to enter the system when the card reader didn’t recognize my card. Now I know there was plenty of cash on the card so I didn’t know why it wasn’t letting me through. The card reader instructed me to see the station manager. Sounds simple enough right? Well it would have been if she had been around. I stood at that booth for 20 %*#*$ minutes until she finally decides to show up. I don’t know how long she had been gone, but she wasn’t there when I arrived. In the meantime trains were just coming and going and all I needed to do was go that one stop! When she finally arrives, she notices the line of people waiting at the booth (headed by me) and instead of addressing us first, she starts helping the people that were just running up to her. So, I took a picture of her name tag so I wouldn’t forget her name because the next day when I got to work, I called Metro and reported her tail! She’s the station manager and nowadays anything can go down, so to be absent from your post is unacceptable.

20 minutes does sound like a long wait for a station manager, especially considering how long each minute must seem as you stand idly around the fare gates. What strikes me as even more unfortunate is that Miller's Metro trip was but one brief moment in a longer multi-modal commute. He'd just hopped off the bus and needed to go one stop on Metro. Yet with a busted SmarTrip card and no station manager, what's a rider to do? 

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The pedestrian menace of overgrown grass?

April 19, 2012 - 09:55 AM
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(Photo: flickr/justindc

The Petworth listserv has called out the city of D.C. for that most insidious of community crimes — not cutting the grass! Can these citizens fine the D.C. government for not doing their neighborly duty?

"This weekend I went out into the pocket parks at 5th/Park & Rock Creek Church Rd at the intersection of Parkview, Petworth and the Soldier's Home and measured the grass at over 16 inches in places," Justin Johnson told his fellow Petworthians Tuesday morning. "I know that there have already been a number of 311 requests and that my ANC Commissioner (Rob Mandle) has been trying to get the city to take action, but as of when I came to work this morning, the grass in the parks was still overgrown ... Unfortunately, I can't say that I'm shocked that DC Gov't has failed again."

ANC 4C10 Commissioner Rob Mandle chimes in: "If only it were as simple as a 311."

Mandle notes that the land in question is D.C. land, not National Park Service, and outlines three spots when pressed:

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Pedicab operators finally begin open dialogue with NPS and Park Police

April 18, 2012 - 01:43 PM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Last week the National Park Service released a tentative draft of the regulations that will dictate pedicab life on the National Mall. Tuesday evening the federal organization asked pedicab operators for their feedback at the NPS headquarters and received plenty— dozens of operators showed up, and NPS, to their great credit, presented the regulations as clearly as possible, with three presentation stations, repeated invitations for comment, and a persistent acknowledgment that these regulations are still evolving and ready for discussion. On the NPS cafeteria table were many copies of proposed pedicab routes, stations, and copies of the rules, with more than a half dozen officials on hand to answer questions. Shortly after 6 p.m., Bob Vogel, the NPS superintendent of the National Mall, called the meeting to order and explained the ideas behind the tentative regulations. NPS will accept comments through May 2, and although NPS officials hesitate to pin down specific dates, they hope to enact new pedicab regulations by the beginning of June.

"We also want to listen to you," Vogel told the pedicab operators. "We want to offer a wide range of transportation options for our visitors."

Capital Bikeshare's arrival on the Mall, Vogel continued, has been a "tremendous success," with three stations open and two more to come. He wants NPS to continue as "an advocate for pedicabs."

What will all these rules mean? As proposed, they demand that operators stick to the stations and routes, negotiate fares before passengers board, carry a photo ID, keep to certain pedicab standards and certain behaviors (no drunk pedicabbing!), and perhaps most controversially, carry some form of insurance. Many pedicab companies already feature some element of insurance for their operators for purposes of accountability, background checks, and so on. Pedicabs will need general liability insurance: "The policy shall be in the amount of $1,000,000 combined single limit, applying to bodily injury and property damage claims, and underwritten by a United States company naming the United States of America (National Park Service, National Mall and Memorial Parks) as additional insured." But what about independent operators? Under new rules, according to NPS concessions specialist Gordy Kito, an independent operator's insurance would run about $800 to $1,200. The details of these insurance provisions are, however, very much evolving, he told me.

Chocolate strawberries
Bob Vogel speaks. (Photo: John Hendel)

"The insurance is the key point as of now, but we are working towards a
resolution on it with our broker and underwriter," Ben Morris, the San Francisco-based owner of National Pedicabs, told me by e-mail. He and Kito have already begun talking through the insurance rules. "I anticipate this process still has several more weeks if not months to fully resolve itself. Time will tell."

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Car2Go vehicles just keep getting parking tickets

April 18, 2012 - 10:13 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Car2Go launched about three weeks ago, so why haven't District officials realized they aren't supposed to give Car2Go members parking tickets for settling down in metered and residential spots? The Austin-based car-sharing company has paid a lot of money for a city agreement to avoid this, after all. Car2Go vehicles still shouldn't park in rush-hour lanes or where it's prohibited for street sweeping, but standard metered spots? Those should be fine.

I was strolling down 12th Street SW yesterday afternoon, just south of the Smithsonian Metro station, when I spotted one of the Car2Go cars, and of course it had a ticket. The car is a few feet away from a parking meter.

Shortly after the launch, Car2Go told members not to worry about the tickets and just put them in the dashboard as the District Department of Transportation admitted giving some tickets in error. I've continued to hear isolated reports of tickets, and I suspect a lot more time will need to pass before D.C.'s ticketing officers learn all the Car2Go-specific rules. As if ticketing officers didn't already have enough to keep track of. Local Yelp reviews show mixed reactions, including one reviewer who praises Car2Go but then includes a photo of a ticketed Car2Go and adds, "you will see that the revenue robots at D.C. Parking Enforcement are still too blood thirsty." But both the city and the car-sharing company have been aware of the concern, so I suspect and hope it will work itself out in time.

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Metrobus catches fire, prompts a recall of 94 Orion VI buses

April 17, 2012 - 12:58 PM
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(Photo: flickr/p.gordon)

Where have all the Metrobuses gone? WMATA has been attending to so many this spring!

Last month, Metro announced it was retrofitting 47 New Flyer Xcelsior buses due to "an electrical short within the ESS, a lithium-ion battery that stores energy for use by the hybrid traction motor" and resolved by sometime in May. Now today, the transit agency announces it is sidelining 94 Orion VI buses because one caught fire this morning while driving on Route 50 this morning in Maryland. Can you imagine? Apparently one of these Orion VI buses, which Metro has used for a dozen years now, also caught fire last Thursday in Fairfax, which prompted a reduced role in the fleet and investigation. Now all 94 buses are out indefinitely. Metro is reporting no injuries, fortunately.

WMATA features about 1,500 buses total, with 140 cited for various issues. The affected buses comprise just short of 10% of the total bus fleet. Feeling ready for your next bus ride now, commuters?

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How Metro responds to violence on the trains

April 17, 2012 - 09:40 AM
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(Photo: Jay Westcott)

Metro rider and GW Today writer Kurtis Hiatt wrote an April 13 op-ed for the Washington Post called "Why I No Longer Feel Safe on Metro." His goal, he told me, was "to light a fire under Metro, hoping to instigate an investigation into the transit agency's security policies." The piece begins with a March 31 tale of transit violence and a fellow passenger screaming "fuck the white man!" Hiatt writes:

What happened next is a blur. I remember hearing “Look me in the eyes!” Now the voice was close — too close. I turned. The man had squared up directly in front of me, his face level with mine. I met his rage-filled eyes the moment before he head-butted me. Then his right fist came around in a hook, connecting just above my cheek.

Disturbing. But although WMATA can't be expected to eradicate all racially charged unstable riders, God knows, Metro can play a critical role in the aftermath of such harassment or violence, in pursuing the offenders. Hiatt sees "a series of critical failures by Metro to protect its passengers" in the moments after this recent attack. As with sexual harassment, WMATA has responsibility in managing these troubling encounters, and according to Hiatt, fell short in three ways.

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