Check Twitter on any weekday morning — specifically the #WMATA hashtag — and you will be served a heaping tablespoon of rage.
The social media site has become a catharsis center for unhappy Metrorail commuters venting about delays, train malfunctions, and shoddy communication. Photos of packed platforms after train offloads are a regular occurrence in the Twitterverse.
So it makes sense that a new riders’ group was founded on Twitter. The WMATA Riders' Union (@WMATARU) has more than 2,600 followers, and its leaders say they have signed up more than 1,500 real-life members, sending them numbered membership cards.
As some commuters quit Metrorail because of unreliable service, a reality even transit authority management now reluctantly concedes, it would seem the time is ripe for riders to come together in one voice. Real transit advocacy, however, involves more than sending out dozens of angry tweets.
In an interview with WAMU 88.5, the group’s leaders said they are working to become established as a non-profit organization with some full-time staff and funding. Their goal is to rally riders in a constructive way to engage Metro’s top management and board of directors.
In the short-term, volunteers are coming onboard and strategies and tactics are being debated.
“We already have a list of volunteers ready and willing to go,” said Ashley Robbins, chair of the WMATA Riders' Union. “We’ve had people volunteer as lawyers. We’ve had lobbyists volunteer. We have students volunteering.”
The WMATA Riders' Union was created this year.
Robbins is a researcher for Mobility Lab, a government-funded think tank in Arlington that promotes commuting alternatives to the automobile. She has an extensive background in transit advocacy, having worked with the Sierra Club and Citizens for Progressive Transit in Georgia.
“I worked on the pro-transit campaign for the Transportation Investment Act of 2012 in Atlanta,” said Robbins in an interview at Rosslyn station. Her attachment to the new group is both professional and personal.
“My family helped build Metro. My grandfather actually broke his neck in the accident that took place at the Smithsonian station when it was being built,” she said. “There is an investment in the system that I feel personally... I really want to see the system be what it should be.”
Robbins counts herself among the Metro quitters, at least for daily commuting.
“I was a Blue Line rider. I live in Crystal City and I take the bus rather than the train [to Rosslyn] to my office,” she said. The reason? “Those headways.”
Since the Silver Line opened in July 2014, Blue Line headways have been reduced to 12 minutes, but commuters often wait even longer given the frequency of rush hour delays.
Graham Jenkins, the riders union’s spokesman, still rides the train, despite his unhappiness with the service.
“Over the past year it has been the nadir of service for Metro,” he said.
Learning from the past
In 1979 an angry group of subway riders in New York City formed the Straphangers Campaign — and they faced a challenge greater than what lies before the WMATA group.
The New York subway system and the agency that ran it, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), were in a state of disarray. Ridership had dropped to its lowest level since 1917 and public confidence was crumbling like the subway stations that Gene Russianoff was studying.
Russianoff still runs the group he founded during those days of crisis in New York, and in an interview with WAMU 88.5 at his Brooklyn home, he discussed the difficulties of establishing a credible riders’ group to take on a dysfunctional transit system.
“It is great that they are trying to get their act together and trying to deal with these problems. It is a sign that the system is troubled and that the riders know it,” Russianoff said. “That is a big step forward, knowing you have a problem and wanting to do something about it.”
Russianoff, an attorney, works full-time as the leader of the Straphangers Campaign, which is a project of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a large advocacy organization that focuses on a range of issues including environmental protection, education, and government reform.
It would be difficult to succeed at transit advocacy as a part-time gig, Russianoff said.
“If you are a volunteer, you’ve got your family, your work, your community, all these pulls on your time and attention. This is easier said than dealt with, because if you need a full-time staff person, you have to be able to pay them,” he said. “We’ve been able to raise money over a thirty-five year period.”
In the pre-Internet age, Russianoff had to earn his publicity. Unlike the WMATA Riders' Union, which received immediate attention from major news outlets after creating its Twitter account, the Straphangers did some real work to earn credibility with reporters and the public.
“We did a report on the quality of the 20 subway lines that served the city. And it was a bear. We had to put people on stations around the city based on a random table of numbers. Some people were at their station at midnight,” Russianoff recalled.
The report covered everything: subway cars, stations, doors, lighting. And there were black marks everywhere.
“It said 20 percent of the doors were broken. Lights were not working in 16 percent of the cars,” said Russianoff, pulling the figures off the top of his head to make his point.
“Then we did the same report a year later and it made the front page of the New York Times, and it said that things had gotten worse. And that mirrored the feelings of the public. So doing the reports helped get us on the map.”
“We are starting to come together”
So far the WMATA Riders' Union has issued a couple of press releases that have been largely ignored by Metro management.
One missive demanded Metro cease charging peak fares for riders on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines until peak service is restored. Fewer trains are running on all three lines after a transformer fire wrecked a power substation near RFK Stadium, but Metro did not respond to the group’s demands.
Robbins and Jenkins said they have established contacts with some Metro board members, but are waiting for Metro to hire a new general manager to reach out to the transit authority’s top management. They also defended the group’s low public profile — leaders have been largely absent from Metro’s public board and committee meetings — as a sign of their patient approach.
In other words, they are not planning any angry demonstrations outside WMATA headquarters any time soon.
“We have the bodies to do mass events like that but we also have a lot of people whose skills can be used in other ways to go to the board directly and try to direct change from within,” Jenkins said.
“We are starting to come together,” Robbins said. “It is going to take some time to get to any sort of level similar to the Straphangers Campaign in New York.”
Russianoff recalled another seminal moment in the early days of the Straphangers Campaign.
“We worked with community groups and we got a thousand people to an auditorium in Manhattan. [MTA chairman] Dick Ravitch came in. Probably he wanted to turn around, but he kept on going,” said Russianoff about the man widely credited with rescuing the subways from failure.
“Ravitch sat at a table in the front of the room and for an hour people berated him, and said ‘you are fiddling while the subways burn,’” Russianoff remembered.
“The next day we were on the front page of the Daily News. ‘Irate riders rip city, state, and MTA!’”
Ravitch agreed to return to a similar public gathering a year later, establishing a relationship with the people whose participation in public transit was vital to the system’s recovery.
The union and the RAC
Whether the WMATA Riders' Union can establish such a relationship with Metro’s next general manager remains to be seen. Currently, a voluntary, Metro-funded group of 21 riders from across the Washington region has a regular audience with management, the Riders Advisory Council (RAC).
Its chairwoman, Barbara Hermanson, said she does not view the new riders’ group as a competitor in the advocacy space.
“We have our own initiatives that we spearhead that are topics near and dear to us,” Hermanson said. “We are happy to have any voices of riders. We think it is a good thing to have multiple groups advocating for riders. We are free to tell the [Metro] board whatever our opinion is, whether it is one they want to hear or not.”
The RAC is not known for rankling the transit authority, even in times of public outrage over poor service and high fares. For instance, the RAC would never organize a protest demonstration, a tactic to which Russianoff’s Straphangers Campaign has resorted. The WMATA Riders' Union is refraining from public provocations – so far.
Twitter “does not replace standing outside the governor’s office with 50 angry subway riders holding posters, or a delegation meeting to meet an important legislator. Those still go on,” Russianoff said. “And it is no substitute for a full-time staff person who can call up the chief of staff of WMATA and say…we’ll be outside your office tomorrow with signs.”
Also, Russianoff’s network of student volunteers is capable of handing out 25,000 pamphlets on subway platforms in a single morning.
While Metro has many long-term infrastructure needs, Robbins said her group initially will focus on relatively smaller items that anger commuters daily: refunds, communication, fare increases, etc.
“There are so many needs right now, but yes, the immediate need of getting through rush hour and having a day when 5 of the 6 lines don’t melt down, is all that we are really concerned about,” she said.
“There are the immediate issues of day-today service that make it really inconvenient to get around,” Jenkins added. “Then there are long-term issues that contribute to that inconvenience. The fix for the Blue Line is going to take a lot of money, an infrastructure-based improvement, but it is years away. That is something that needs to be done just as much as fixing a door.”
Music: "The Trolley Song" by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass from Herb Alpert's Ninth