As an early adopter of technology, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) of Washington DC has been at the forefront of public transit innovation. Over the last 20 years, digital innovation has improved rider experience – making public transit easier to use, more reliable, faster to use, and more transparent. However, problems with its operational practices have recently reached a critical point that creates many difficulties, but also many opportunities moving forward.
Once considered the jewel of American public transit systems, WMATA is now facing an unprecedented crisis. A fatality and 84 hospitalizations caused by a smoke-filled tunnel made national headlines last year, but the issues run much deeper than this serious one-time incident.1 With maintenance backlogs, safety issues, decreasing ridership, financial problems, and the lowest ever on-time performance in 2015 (84%), WMATA is being forced to take drastic actions to protect its future. 2,3
Last year, WMATA brought in a new CEO, Paul Wiedefeld, to turn around the agency.4 Much to the ire of the public, he closed the entire rail system for 24 hours in March to perform emergency safety checks on hundreds of electric cables, and in June he rolled out a yearlong infrastructure repair process that shuts down busy rail segments for extended time periods. 5,6
With over 337 million trips last year, WMATA is one of the biggest transit departments in the United States in terms of ridership.7 Strained customer confidence, however, is hurting the reputation of the system. What can WMATA do to improve satisfaction and prevent this maintenance nightmare from reoccurring? Perhaps WMATA can look to its past to gain insights for how to propel itself into the future.
An Innovative Past
WMATA has a history of embracing digital technology to better serve its riders and improve operations. Some examples in the last few decades include the following:
- 1999 – Contactless Smart Cards – WMATA is the first transit authority in the U.S. to deploy system-wide contactless smart cards.8 This innovation provides many convenience benefits for customers, including faster entry into buses or trains, seamless transfer between rail and bus, and lose-proof transit cards (money tied to an account rather than a physical ticket). For WMATA, it also enables data tracking of passenger trips and facilitates more sophisticated fare structures based on distance or peak times.8
- 2000 – Displays with Real-time Train Predictions – Using GPS technology, WMATA installs electronic signage in metro rail stations showing next train arrival time estimates.9 With greater transparency, riders now can know how long their wait will be.
- 2000 – Integration of Communications System – WMATA institutes an integrated radio communication system for police, bus, rail and maintenance employees (the first U.S. transit authority to do so), which improves operational information flows.10
- 2004-2007 – Modernization of IT System – WMATA consolidates 80 different computer systems into 3 systems including timekeeping, financial reporting, capital project and maintenance management, bus and train scheduling, and budgeting.11 Integrating these business processes leads to better communication, more automation, and a 95% reduction in payroll errors.11
- 2010 – Publicly Share Bus and Rail Location Data – WMATA opens its extensive real-time data to external software and mobile app developers, contributing to more reliable service and better customer satisfaction.12, 13 In 2015, WMATA received 1.2 billion calls (app user requesting a piece of data) through these third party apps. 14
Transit Data Publicly Provided by Major Transit Systems (in 2010) 15
Number of Requests for WMATA API Data (2011- Jan 2016) 14
- 2014-2015 – Bus Stop Displays with Real-time Predictions – similar to its train stations, WMATA installs next bus electronic signage at 170 bus stops.16, 17
- 2014 – Partnership with Tech Startup – Urban Engines (now owned by Google) helps WMATA streamline passenger entry and exit data (enabled by smart cards) to visualize travel patterns and recognize congestion, delays, and rail platform crowding. 18 WMATA director of planning boasts that “we are now able to get a granular view into our transit system across all stations in 15-minute increments.” 18 This allows WMATA to make informed operating decisions to improve passenger experience.
A Path to the Future?
With smart cards and real-time predictions, WMATA used technology to improve service. With serious maintenance problems going forward, however, no rider mobile app or travel pattern analysis can mitigate looming reliability challenges. Although unexpected delays, shutdowns, and safety concerns cannot be fixed overnight, technology and sensors offer a possible long-term solution to prevent this crisis from happening again. A digital transformation of it maintenance model – by installing remote sensors throughout the system – could help WMATA identify when preventive maintenance is needed (reliability-centered maintenance) before it is too late.19
While emerging technology can improve the WMATA operating model, it also poses a threat to disrupt the entire system. The same sensors that can improve WMATA also enable a digital transformation in the automotive industry – whether ride sharing or autonomous vehicles – that threatens to change the usage of public transit. Time will tell if WMATA can stay relevant or if it will slowly disappear from the map.