Episode 002 of the FixWMATA Podcast was recorded in November, 2017 and features news, rider interviews, and an interview with @DCMetroHero.
Link to Ian Sutherland's Music: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/ian_sutherland
Text of this episode:
I’m Chris Barnes and this… is the FixWMATA Podcast
This week we take a quick look back at the news from November 11th through 17th, 2017 – then we talk with riders outside Silver Spring Metro – and later I sit down with everyone’s favorite Metro app: DCMETROHERO….
In WMATA news this week…
Adam Tuss gives us a heads-up about escalator repairs at Judiciary Square that has one of the entrances closed…
Martin DiCaro has reaction to the long-awaited Ray LaHood report on WMATA and in a separate piece addresses one of the suggestions from the report which says bus fares should be raised and lines cut…
Several reporters covered a Senate report that came out this week saying the WMATA Office of Inspector General isn’t as effective as it should be due to close spending and IT interactions with WMATA. The same report details how at one point a Metro employee had installed key-tracking software on the OIG computers….
Di Caro also responded to WMATA Board meeting presentations on Vital Signs by asking “What does Metro mean by ‘on-time’?” There’s a debate on whether that time is based on train movement or people movement. Another discussion resulted from this asking if WMATA is adjusting their metrics to paint a rosier picture of the ridership – something that prompted General Manager Wiedefeld to announce the needle has moved and invited riders who left to come back despite several planned closures and unchanged service levels….
WTOP has a story about WMATA looking to privatize operations of the Cinder Bed bus facility which would be a departure from the norm. The change may reduce costs but upset WMATA’s labor union.
There were also several crime stories this week and on the grosser side of things Adam Tuss has a story about how hair… human hair… is apparently causing problems with WMATA’s rail equipment.
All of these stories and more can be found on FixWMATA dot com where new stories are added throughout the week.
This week I spent some time outside the Silver Spring station and asked riders about the upcoming Red Line closure scheduled for November 25 through December 10. During the 16 day closure the Red Line will be replaced by limited bus service between Silver Spring and Fort Totten while Takoma station is closed. On the weekend of December 2nd ALL of the Red Line is closed between Fort Totten and Glenmont for track work and WMATA will continue limited bus shuttles through the entire area.
[begin interview audio]
[FixWMATA] Can you just start with your first name and home station?
[Jamal] I’m Jamal from Silver Spring Station.
[F] OK, Jamal – are you aware of the Red Line shutdown that’s coming up for 16 days?
[Jamal] Yeah, I know about it.
[F] OK, what’s your plan to get around it?
[Jamal] Get a car and drive and get a bike and ride.
[F] OK, so seriously – get a car. Do you have a car now?
[Jamal] Yeah, why not?
[FixWMATA] Can I just start with your first name and home Metro station?
[Francisco] My name is Francisco and my home station’s Takoma Park Station.
[F] Oh, perfect. So are you aware of the upcoming Red Line shutdown for 16 days?
[Francisco] Uh no.
[F] No? The folks in the red over there are handing out brochures. From November 25th through December 10th there’s no rail service between Silver Spring and Fort Totten. How does that affect you?
[Francisco] Um, well – that’s kinda a bummer to me but I usually manage.
[Chris] So I’m Chris from Silver Spring.
[F] Oh, me too! Awesome. Do you know about the Red Line shutdown?
[Chris] Between Takoma Park and Silver Spring? Between the 2?
[F] Yeah. For 16 days. You said it affects you or it doesn’t affect you?
[Chris] It does not affect me. I live down the street and I live within Silver Spring, work within Silver Spring but I have several co-workers who it’s actually going to affect.
[F] OK, do you know how they’re going to get around it?
[Chris] One basically said “screw it – I’m going to drive in very very early in the morning”. So I can imagine the Beltway being a wonderland the next 2 weeks.
[F] OK. One other question I’m asking everybody: what’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix it?
[Chris] I’m not exactly sure like that’s such a complex systems question cause it’s – I mean when I first moved up here it’s a combination between it’s gotten so expensive but the service is lagging as well so I mean… when I first moved up here I could get around on $5 like all day long and then I started working in Silver Spring and moving from Fairfax it started costing me about $6 each way it’s just prohibitively expensive when a gallon of gas is less than $3 or $3.50 it’s still cheaper – just depending on the mileage of your car.
[F] So the fares going up has affected you. Did you move to Silver Spring near work because the fares went up?
[Chris] A mix of the 2. Because the commuting time by driving is so bad and the Metro would cost me as much. Like, I would actually prefer to take the Metro if it cost less. You know you sacrifice the time for the cost but when the cost is more than is both higher than driving and in terms of time it’s not worth it for me.
[F] Awesome, thanks for your time, Chris.
[Charles] My first name is Charles, my home station is Greenbelt, Maryland.
[F] So, you have a pamphlet in your hand there about the Red Line shutdown and you’re just now finding out about it. 16 days of no service between Silver Spring and Fort Totten… will that affect you and how will you get around it if it does?
[Charles] It will affect me but if they provide shuttle bus service then it won’t affect me as much. Yeah.
[F] OK, so it’s just going to maybe delay you a little bit?
[Charles] It will delay me. It will delay me and it’ll be little bit of an inconvenience but like I said, if they provide shuttle bus service then I’ll still be able to make it to Silver Spring. I come here a couple days a week.
[F] OK, awesome. I’m asking everyone a core question and that is: what’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix it?
[Charles] I would say the obvious answer to that is that not enough money’s coming in and too much money is going out. I’ve often thought about that and I can’t say how we fix it – I don’t know the details of the system but I’ve had some ideas myself. I’ve often thought that maybe they could allow vendors to work on the train and pay them to work on the train – inside the train system. You know like people selling hats and gloves, set up a table during non-rush hour times and those people could pay Metro to setup tables. That would be one way to bring money in.
[F] Yeah, vendor revenue?
[Charles] Vendor revenue, yeah. I also thought that to get more riders on Metro they could have concerts in the parking lots of some of the stations some days. And that would obviously draw people to the Metro because the quickest way to get to the concert would be to get to that Metro station. So on the parking lots of some of the Metro… Greenbelt has a huge parking lot and if they held a concert there and had vendors out there, things like that it could draw people to Metro that way.
[F] OK, awesome – thanks for your time.
[Charles] Thank you, sir.
[end interview audio]
Rider Sean from Dunn Loring left me a voicemail about the disconnect between WMATA’s customer service and financial realities…
[begin Sean voicemail]
Hi Chris, my name is Sean and my home station is Dunn Loring. I’ve been taking the Orange Line 10 times a week for the last 4 years and before that the Red Line 10 times a week for 3 years. From the start I’ve always tried to find the good in Metro but it didn’t take until the first year for all that to erode into nothing.
The only thing I like are the new 7000 series trains. They look clean from the outside but more importantly they look good and smell clean from the inside and the seating is more comfortable. It is weekly that I encounter problems. It’s frustrating. I feel like WMATA as a whole – the union, the Board, and local and state representatives are disconnected from the riders and are for advocating their own interests.
I, like all of us, are paying customers. How can a company continue to survive when they do not deliver on their product let alone stand behind it? No one seems to understand that customer satisfaction has been proven to have a direct relationship with financial success.
When I hear about WMATA wrapping it’s trains, installing the HD ad boards in stations with their offensive PR drives I wonder about all that money spent that could rather go into safety enhancements and performance. No one seems to get it at all.
As morbid as this may seem I think the only possible turn-around is gonna involve another major accident with a big loss of life. That’s going to force the Fed to come in or someone to take complete control. Giving more money is needed to keep the dysfunction going unfortunately but it’s never going to lead to happy customers.
Chris, thanks for the podcast and all that you, UnSuck, and DCMetroHero do. You guys are better than the media. Thanks.
[end Sean voicemail]
I appreciate your comments, Sean and you hit on some important points. If you’d like to have your voice heard you can call me at 202-709-6282 and leave a voicemail to be included in next week’s podcast.
This week I attended a hearing of the Northern Virginia Transit Commission where WMATA board members from Virginia gave a presentation and fielded rider concerns. At that meeting I talked with James Pizzurro, one of the founders of DCMetroHero. James and his partner Jen have managed to create a website that merges data provided by WMATA and data sourced from Twitter about Metro rail service. The website DCMetroHero.com not only displays this collection of real-time transit data in a format riders seem to love but the pair have also done a great job providing historical performance information which can identify trends and how the system responds to events. The project has put James and Jen in an odd position of remaining completely independent from WMATA while having to work with them on a changing data feed terms of service agreement.
[FixWMATA] I’m here with James Pizzurro of DCMetroHero to talk about your app and website. Thanks for joining me, James.
[James] My pleasure.
[F] In your own words – what is DCMetroHero?
[J] So, DCMetroHero is an app that allows riders, specifically commuters – its geared towards a commuter audience – to try… we claim to give them a very good picture into their Metrorail commute so you can visualize delays and congestion with our line maps. You can see trains go up and down the line as opposed to just train ETAs you might see on a station platform and really put your commute in context as opposed to just relying on the information that you might see on a station platform.
[F] OK. And, James, what’s the origin story here? It’s you and one other person, is that right?
[J] That’s right. Me and Jennifer Hill. Jen is working towards her PHD in Computer Science at GW which is where I had my undergrad. She takes an interesting approach in a natural language processing view that she brings to the table which is great for parsing tweets from riders and digesting that information and subsequently displaying in our app. But getting back to the question… really what it’s about is – it was born out of frustration. Back in the summer of 2015 the 2 of us were aboard a train, we were underneath the Potomac between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom, we were holding for it had to be at least 5 minutes maybe 10 when all was said and done. And we were sitting there and wondering like – somehow we had a bar of service, which I’ve never had happen ever again in that tunnel – but it was great because we were able to you know – let’s see if there are any apps out there. It took forever to load but we were scanning out and there’s nothing that would tell us where our train is or other trains are relative to our position. The operator wasn’t saying a word so we really had no idea and there was no way for us to find out which was really frustrating. So we then spent the next 3 or 4 months developing a prototype turning data that was not intended to be used the way it was into train positions so that we could see which trains are in front of us or behind us and then make some of our own determinations based on our experience commuting every day in the Metrorail system.
[F] And as Wifi and other cell service becomes better within the system all that information becomes more readily available at the fingertips of riders, right?
[J] That’s right. It’s an amazing opportunity, really. The more access that people have to an application like ours, or really any application that tells them where trains are, the better.
[F] Cool. I love your website – I use it. And I think a common question is “why no iPhone app?’.
[J] It’s a great question. The answer is now on our FAQ – that’s how frequently that it is asked – and really the answer is that we only bring a certain amount of expertise to the table. The 2 of us don’t claim to know everything. We don’t know the first thing about iOS app development. I’m the only one who brings the particular technical approach to the website that we designed. There are a lot of technologies out there but the one that I chose specifically maybe works pretty well Multiplatform. So we found success with that. But really the real reason is just time and resources – we don’t have the manpower, we don’t have the resources. That said – and this is a relatively new thing that we’ve started – we started releasing our data in real-time for other people to use. So if they have expertise in developing an iOS app they would be able to use our data to inform their own application and could help get it to more riders more quickly – a much wider audience. So that’s a new initiative we’ve started and it’s sort of in that direction, right? We’re not saying that “oh, we hate THOSE users – those commuters aren’t good” and hopefully this helps those people who’ve really been dying for native application experience.
[F] Yeah, that’s great that you’re not silo’d – that you’re, you know, trying to keep everything within your own fence, so to speak. Also the website works great on every browser on your phone so as long as you have a newer phone you really don’t need the iPhone app. Your data, speaking of your data, for the most part comes directly from WMATA right?
[J] That’s right, yeah. So the only – with a couple of caveats – the main thing we source from WMATA are where the trains are. Mostly everything else barring things like MetroAlerts, which we also get from them, everything else is us. Including train predictions that you see in our app are actually us. We’re not getting that from WMATA like almost every other app is – that’s all work that we did. We developed our own train prediction algorithm. And that is what, for example, we’re now sharing with riders through our data feeds that we’ve just released.
[F] So, the first question that comes to mind is “why hasn’t WMATA done this themselves?”.
[J] That’s a good question and actually one that I raised not too long ago with some parties within WMATA and for the most part the answer is honestly a little bit similar in terms of manpower and resources. You’d be surprised with what kind of money they’re working with in those departments. It is not a lot. In some cases the departments I’m talking about have literally no budget yet they still have like maybe 1 part-time employee helping out. So really it kinda is that. I also don’t think there was a real – there wasn’t too much attention paid to this idea that there might be a security concern with releasing train positions. It was something that was VERY ingrained and took a very long time to convince some individuals within WMATA that that wasn’t the case. And there are still people there that think that to this day. I’m not sure anyone will be able to convince them otherwise but those 2 forces really – the time and money and also the just intrenched warfare almost really prevented this from happening. It took a lot of effort to make them… well now they have a API that allow, a data feed, that allows you to get those train positions right which they didn’t use to have when we started this back in 2015. So you can see just even in the span of 2 years progress has been made there and I’m excited to see what other revelations they’ll have in the future.
[F] That sounds like you’ve made some progress but I have to turn it a bit the other direction. Recently there’s been some pretty public tension between WMATA and 3rd party developers like yourself. Just today you were at the WMATA Board meeting and provided your 2 minutes of public comment about just that. What is all that about and what needs to be fixed there?
[J] Yeah, so in our effort to get our data feed, our data feeds available to riders and fellow developers we made the decision to engage WMATA in that process. It was not something that we had to do we just thought it was a good thing to do. We did that a long time ago and it only just started back up 6 months ago and when it started back up they claimed that they needed to bring Legal in and have a fresh look at their Terms of Service. So basically we were able to proceed forward with out data feeds but we unfortunately lost some of the things we can do with out data. That includes anything from being able to issue a press release with WMATA’s name in it to claiming that our data is accurate or complete. Really just some archaic terms that are in legal-ease and clearly came from a lawyer, probably not a whole lot of developer conversation involved in making those decisions. So that’s what we’re contending with now is trying to get some of those terms reversed or at least rephrased so they’re not so restrictive. And I think you’re going to see a lot more of that over the next couple of weeks and hopefully some positive change come out of that.
[F] Sounds like you’re trying to comply with what restrictions they’ve put on developers but there’s some progress to be made there. Back to the app – is there something that your users keep asking for that you’re working on or really want to deliver for them soon?
[J] Yeah, so one of our features is being able to plug in your origin station and your destination station and get, in real-time, a prediction for how long you’ll be waiting on the platform for a train that will take you to your destination station from your origin station and also once you’re on the train how long it will take from your origin station to your destination station using current conditions. So, “what does it look like right now?” – we can give you some times. And those are obviously changing within plus or minus a few minutes but we think that’s a really powerful tool to just be able to pull up something and say “well, this is how long my trip might take” and then make decisions from there. Am I using a different mode of transportation? Maybe I have a choice? Like I could use the Blue Line instead of the Yellow Line that day – maybe it’s something as simple as that. So what we want to do that we have a problem with right now is trying to come up with a way to handle transfers. That’s a really big problem. It’s a big technical problem that doesn’t make too much sense why it would be a problem just looking at it from the surface as a commuter. But you do need to think about things, right? How long does it take for me to go from the Blue/Orange/Silver lines at Metro Center up to the Red Line? There’s a walk time to take into account there. There’s a different platform wait time that you’re now dealing with and who knows if the train on the Red Line will meet you in time after you get to Metro Center on the Orange/Silver/Blue Lines? So that’s something we’d like to deliver because we think that could be an interesting stand-alone application – and maybe one that we don’t even have to offer but someone else, another app developer, can through our data feeds. So we think that’s a really exciting possibility. It’s not something that WMATA’s has focused on in real-time. They’ve recently decided to take a look at things in aggregate with how long people’s trips are taking after they’re done. But we think by doing it in real-time there’s some major benefits to be had with regards to someone choosing whether or not to take Metrorail or how they take Metrorail that could be leveraged rather than just looking at it “well, they were late that day”. That’s useful but it’s not useful in the moment. So we think we can really contribute there.
[F] Again, it’s just you and Jen – so there’s 2 of you doing this in your spare time but there have to be some costs involved with doing this. You’re running a website that’s getting a lot of hits. How are you funded and how does your financial future look?
[J] Yeah, I like to say that this is my 2nd full-time job. And really it’s only gotten more so that way. Initially it was very small, I was able to fund it myself just from, you know, basically pocket change. We didn’t have a really beefy server to host all our stuff on then. Now we used to run ads, that wasn’t so cool so we stopped that and we switched to Patreon which is a crowd-funding website where people can just basically contribute as little a dollar or as much as they want. If you contribute $10 [FixWMATA Note: $10/month] you get a shirt. But they can do whatever they want, right? How are we benefitting you? What’s the dollar amount there? And you don’t have to contribute anything, right? But for people who feel like they do want to give back in that way every bit helps. All the money, 100%, goes towards funding our servers, building up new features. We have goals established for what we want to do and if there’s enough money we’ll do it. And that’s sort of the direction we’ve taken recently with that kind of stuff. You know – what do riders want? Do they want us to continue down this path? Are they satisfied, right? And they get to dictate that by donating however much money they want to and we’ve found really great success with that. It’s a great way to build a community just around that notion of ‘no, you guys are in charge’. Obviously we bring some very opinionated things to the table with how we present information but you can tell us whether we’re right or wrong, right? We’re going to follow where that path leads.
[F] What’s the most surprising part of running DCMetroHero? Anything that’s caught you guys off guard in the process?
[J] We’ve been talked to by the media and some other people as though we are you know some kind of developer advocate. Like we represent all the developers. We once had a meeting with WMATA in which we were told – or asked – to try to bring some developers to the table for a meeting that we attended. It was a really weird position, I’ll be honest. And that was like a year ago so it was even weirder then to be in that position. We’re just 2 people and we developed a thing that we first and foremost wanted to be useful for us as commuters and then since then it’s really evolved into wow, like all this stuff we can do. We’ve just tried to explore every permutation of things that we can do. And that is really surprising. I honestly could not have said, even 6 months ago, that we would find ourselves in a position like this. But we’re grateful for it – it’s only benefited us with regards to making the best app we can. And it’ll be really useful I hope for the future for anyone who has grand ideas about a Metro themed app that maybe if they’re using our data feeds we offer them or even just ideas, right? Maybe no one was thinking about what a line map might look like on a phone until they saw it and then that sparks a whole different set of ideas that we are not creative enough to think of. That someone could take advantage of. So it is really surprising to find ourselves in that position and hopefully we’re doing it as much justice as we can but like I said – this is not our arena really at heart it’s just where we found ourselves and we are grateful for that.
[F] Would you consider yourself a developer advocate at WMATA?
[J] I don’t know. I think that’s sort of where we found ourselves, like I said. And we’ll be there as long as we need to. As long as we’re in the area and see problems and solutions – and we’re always quick to say when things are going well. But yeah, I guess in a way we do and hopefully more people can fill that role too. Hopefully it’s not just the 2 of us going forward and hopefully everyone starts to come to the table say when these Terms of Service are revised – maybe that brings more people in and people start to “oh, ok, look they’re listening to the developer community – that’s great now I can develop the application that I’ve always wanted to”. Hopefully that’s what comes out of all this is we’re just moving the bar forward, we’re not just stagnating with 2 people or with the same set of apps. Hopefully everything is moving towards something much bigger.
[F] The question I ask everyone, and I’d like for you to answer either from the point of view of DCMetroHero or from the point of view of James: what’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[J] I think I’m going to have to answer this one personally. For me it is communication. I think almost everything comes down to a problem with communication. I think it’s really easy for people who don’t see that problem to say that WMATA’s OK at it, right? Yeah, they put out MetroAlerts when there are delays you know – relatively informed. There’s a website where you can check train times and you can check elevator outages there. All those things are fantastic. I just do think that most of the time there’s too much emphasis on things that can be spun as going well than there are like ground truth. What is actually happening? What are the attitudes of actual commuters, actual riders? And that disconnect can be really unpalatable to a lot of people – I know it is for me and I would imagine I’m not the only you know, I used to be an average rider – maybe I’m not anymore but I have a feeling that that sentiment is shared by a lot of average riders. And so the key there and the problem that needs to get fixed is bringing those people in, having them engaged and I feel like that’s not going to happen through a PR campaign it’s going to happen through actual grassroots advocacy where you have people setting out towards a goal that they all agree on and we solve those problems together. If WMATA gets involved with that it’ll only be in their best interest. Truly involved – not just, you know, saying what they want to hear looking in a mirror. I think that would solve a lot of problems. Maybe not everything but it would be the path toward solving every problem.
[F] OK, again the website is DCMetroHero.com. James thank you very much for your time.
[J] My pleasure, thank you.
Before we wrap up this episode I should let you know there won’t be an episode next week due to the holiday but the podcast will return on December 2nd.
I hope you’ll join me again next time. Until then take care of yourself and your fellow rider – we’re all in this together!
If you would like to be featured on a future FixWMATA podcast or have segment suggestions please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @FixWMATA.
If you have something to say about WMATA and want to leave feedback you can call me at 202-709-6282 and leave a voicemail that may be included in a future podcast.
The FixWMATA podcast is recorded using Apple products and can be found on iTunes and Google Play.
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The music used in the podcast comes from Ian Sutherland and a link to his music can be found on the website.
You can continue the conversation on Twitter by following @FixWMATA or searching the hashtag WMATA.