Metro Forward: how you turn a transit agency around

Note: An edited version of this post was cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

Ten days ago, WMATA launched Metro Forward, a six-year action plan (and associated media campaign). The region’s transit infrastructure has suffered badly from decades of underinvestment and deterioration, and Metro Forward is all about changing that. Metro Forward is an ambitious plan: station rehabilitation, track replacement, new buses, and, of course, a new way of communicating with riders. It will take serious time and money, and riders will face disruption along the way, but Metro Forward is what this system needs for its survival. Right now, Metro Forward is more ambition than action; the program is barely a month old, and it will be some time before riders see real, tangible effects.

This is not the first time I have watched a transit agency try to turn itself around; Metro Forward reminds me very much of Mouvement Collectif, a similar program by the STM, the public transit agency in Montreal. When I arrived in Montreal in 2005, the STM struck me as being, well, good enough. The buses and metro ran (usually on time), and most buses ran frequently enough. I remember spending too long in a very cold, snowy bus shelter one time, but that was the exception, rather than the norm (and partly my fault, for not checking how often the bus ran). At the same time, there was still a lot of room for improvement. The trip planner was a fiddly home-grown affair. There was very little real-time information available for rail passengers, and no real-time information for bus passengers. This was before Twitter, but the STM didn’t post disruption information on its Web site—even in the case of major disruptions. The fare collection system wasn’t ancient, but it wasn’t modern, either. There were some new buses in the fleet, but no hybrids or articulated buses, and the new buses were catching fire (seriously, it was bad).

Then, in May 2009, the STM launched Mouvement Collectif. Mouvement Collectif is more than just a marketing program; big changes were underway at the STM. How has the STM changed? The STM bus fleet now includes hybrids and articulated buses, improving the STM’s carbon footprint and increasing capacity on high-ridership routes. They’ve fixed the incendiary problems with the first-generation LFS buses, too. The OPUS fare collection system was launched, providing riders with a contactless smart card which can be used across the services of the STM, STL, RTL, other regional transit agencies, and even the RTC in Quebec. The metro doesn’t have new rolling stock yet, but the MPM-10 rolling stock is now in the design stage. The STM has a public presence on social networks, and a new Web site which is a lot better than the old design. Passenger information is getting better, too; there are now MetroVision screens in more stations across the network.

The STM has made tangible improvements to its bus network, with the réseau 10 minutes max, a better night bus network, and an airport shuttle which is more convenient for riders than previous options and which has proven to be a real success in its first year of operation. It takes longer to make real changes to a rail system than a bus network; it’s going to be a few more years before the MPM-10s start running. But the STM continues to work on renovating the rail system, too; elevators have been installed at key transfer stations, among other improvements. Tous azimuts, the STM’s trip planner, is still there (although it, too, has gotten better), but the STM’s schedules are in Google Transit now.

Mouvement Collectif is also about making public transit a more attractive option. Sustainability is a major component of Mouvement Collectif—not only mass transit as a sustainable transportation choice, but also the sustainable operation of transit services, through the use of biodiesel and other measures.

So, is the STM perfect, today? No. But it’s getting there. In short, this is how you turn a transit agency around. The STM didn’t change overnight, but rather in measured steps over several years. The same goes for WMATA. Metro Forward isn’t a six-month program; it’s a six-year program. Today’s STM is, by leaps and bounds, a better transit agency than when I first rode public transit in Montreal in 2005. Thanks to Metro Forward, tomorrow’s WMATA has the potential to be a far better transit agency than it is today. For the STM, Mouvement Collectif has paid off; in 2010 the STM was recognized by APTA as an Outstanding Public Transportation System in North America. WMATA could achieve the same success, and Metro Forward puts the agency on the right track (no pun intended) to do so. It will take time, and there will be a lot of disruption along the way, but we’ll get there.