You have a right to speak up: how Washington metro communicates with riders

First impressions

In June 2017 my family and I spent a few weeks in Washington, DC. We had just enough time to explore almost all of the museums, different parts of the city and to learn how the urban transit works. I tried to pay attention to the things which already had became familiar during the Digital Youth in Media City project in the Helsinki metro:  various forms of media, use of mobile devices, presence of surveillance and control and street art.

Washington, DC has an old and quite well developed public transit that includes buses, a subway and trams (tram or streetcar probably was the only thing free of charge). On one hand, metro is faster comparing to buses and it seemingly tries to take good care of its passengers providing them with useful information through posters about safety, various social campaigns, convenient websites and mobile apps. On the other hand, the fare calculation is hard to comprehend (fare depends on both distance and the time of a day, it is more expensive during morning and evening rush hours) and navigation in metro is complicated (up to three different lines may run on the same platform), underground stations are dark and service is less reliable comparing to London, Helsinki and Saint Petersburg.

Interestingly, much of public transport in Washington DC is branded as Metro: it is Metrorail and Metrobus. Even a Metropolitan Police Department MPDC  has a “metro” in their name (referring to metropole – “mother city” in Greek). There is a separate Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) that works exclusively with Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

Metrorail underground stations share almost identical Brutalist design and modern architecture: a raw grey concrete of coffered ceiling vaults and glossy black columns in the middle of platforms.  There is almost nothing what can attract attention: no stickers, tags, all is very clean and gray.

Grey walls and…

… gray trains.

Some color is added by simplistic color monitors that show riders useful information about arrival of trains and announcements about changes in schedules of emergencies.

  Art  in Transit (picture by WMATA)

In fact there are many stations with public art that add some colors to the Metrorail. Interesting is that most of art is located along the green line that runs through poorest and troubled South-Eastern neighborhoods.

WMATA has special guidelines for appropriate art and a special program for artists.

Unfortunately I did not see much of artwork, except for some stickers and graffiti in the areas around metro stations.

Is the Washington Metrorail safe?
During my very first rides on Metrorail and metrobus I noticed anti-harassment and ‘Back2Good’ campaign posters in metro cars and buses that addressed the issues of transport safety and reliability. These are probably two major problems for Metrorail. Statistics published by WMATA show declining ridership and high number of accidents and crimes. Public transport has a difficult task to win over safe and comfortable private cars as the main means of urban transportation.

According to statistics of criminal offenses, the Metrorail is the least safe public transport in DC. In 2015 the MTPD reported only 284 crimes on buses and stops, and as many as 2687 crimes on the rail  ( ). The Metrorail ridership is not significantly higher comparing to Metrobus ( ). In 2016 fiscal year, WMATA registered 321 million passenger trips, of which 191 million were on Metrorail and 130 million trips on Metrobus.   It makes 1.4 and 0.2 crimes per 100 000 Metrorail and Metrobus trips respectively. Although the public transport is generally safe, the difference in crime rate on buses and on rail is huge. Indeed, it could be explained by the fact that  Metrorail trips last longer and cover greater distances; the control is mediated by technical means and other co-rides, rather than by driver and police on bus lines concentrated in city center. Metro riders  have to rely on technical surveillance as the help from police or driver is likely to arrive too late.

In the bus the driver controls the front part of the vehicle and CCTV camera controls the rear of the bus. Reference to law in information posters is a common practice in DC.

Information and campaign posters in Washington metro cars and buses occupy as much space as commercials. “You have a right to speak up” – a poster tells about the campaign against sexual harassment, encouraging victims to inform Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) about offences. Riders can use WMATA webpage to report harassment, providing all details and staying anonymous if they choose to.

Too often sexual offenses remain unreported and it is unacceptable that they are treated by many as a ’norm’. According to the interviews done in our research project, harassment is one of young riders’ concerns in the Helsinki Metro. In the interviews DiMe informants told us that experiences of both sexual and racial harassment have a huge impact on their feeling and of safety in the city.

The ‘Back2Good’ campaign in Washington Metrorail focused on the issue of reliability and attempts to improve the image of Metrorail.

According to WMATA the Back2Good campaign is about improving the metro service and its image by addressing technical and management issues: modernization of railcars (taking new rail cars in service), improving safety (by repairing tracks), improving service reliability (linked to previous two points), station improvements and financial management. For instance ‘Metro Riders Defend the Homeland’ poster appeals to patriotic feelings and compares the maintenance of transport infrastructure to military defending of own country and the world: “the world depends on Metro riders to tackle their jobs”. Perhaps this poster also refers to Pentagon employees – army personnel who travel on blue and yellow lines to Pentagon station where Department of Defense is located and their service depends on reliable work of Metrorail.

Back2Good public relations campaign poster on the image above refers to disaster response by metro riders and perhaps refers to citizen participation in the aftermath of past technological disasters in metro.  Poster also appeals to shared responsibility of riders and transport company.

What about communication with metro riders?

Public relations campaign or new mobile apps can’t solve the technical problems in public transportation, or make brighter the dark stations. They certainly can contribute to increasing awareness about the existing social problems (especially in the cities where social inequalities are very visible). In Helsinki public transport we have seen the Ihmisoikeusliitto (Human Rights Union) campaign Stop! Päätepysäkki syrjinnälle against discrimination. It is important that mass transit companies and particularly HKL that manages metro in Helsinki continue this on their own initiative.

Information campaigns in public transport should tell more than just about new sensor screens on ticketing machines or new services. Tens of thousands of people use the Helsinki metro everyday. There will be more riders when Länsimetro starts to operate. It is important that particularly metro continues to inform riders that harassment is not a “norm”, discrimination is not acceptable, everyone can speak up when sees abuse.

DiMe project findings tell that very often young people traveling in metro or tram use their smartphones to protect themselves from undesired contacts and harassment – trying to show that they are connected, busy, not interested. HKL and HSL could make easier for riders to report about harassment and racism, they could add this option to their mobile apps (HSL mobiililippu and Oma Matkakortti with option to add GPS coordinates) and have a special page for reporting on their websites. Perhaps surveillance camera and guards are sufficient for transport companies, but young people interviewed during DiMe project tell that it is not enough for them, young metro riders.

Text and photos by Arseniy Svynarenko, DiMe researcher