How NOT to make a case for public transportation

September 1, 2009


A new series of ads recently went up in the D.C. metro system extolling the benefits of public transportation. Ironic, then, that Metro chose to shoot itself in the foot today. I share this as a classic example of a decision that makes one wonder, “What brought this about? Was it sheer incompetence, or was it utter stupidity?”

In D.C., the most accessible airport is Ronald Reagan National Airport, popularly known among D.C.’s vastly Democratic population with the first two words truncated from the name. It is close to downtown and easily accessible via subway. So it seems like a terrible, terrible joke when Metro announces – three days before Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest travel weekends of the year – that it will close three of the stations closest to National Airport, including the one that directly services the airport.

Metro is running free shuttles and it’s possible that this is a minor inconvenience at worst. But this is a complete PR disaster. Announcing major track work three days in advance of a holiday weekend, that will affect one of the city’s biggest transportation hubs, indicates that either there is a serious problem with those tracks that was just discovered, or that a lot of people at Metro are complete morons. I’m a big defender of Metro, and an even bigger defender of public transportation in general, but at this point, I’m honestly not sure which option seems more likely to be true.

It is difficult to sell the virtues of public transportation to a public obsessed with the control that driving a personal vehicle affords, when said public transportation is increasingly unreliable and prone to bouts of awful mismanagement. Just as importantly, this kind of thing makes it that much harder for public transportation advocates to make their case for increased funding and system expansion, particularly at the expense of road-building and other auto-centric spending.

EDIT: Of course, just as I write this post, it turns out that Metro did mention this track work before, in an August 5 press release. From a policy standpoint this doesn’t actually make me feel any better. It indicates that this is not emergency work and so someone decided that Labor Day weekend would be a swell time to shut down access to the area airport. It’s also telling that this was buried in a press release and not posted in more visible places around the system. After all, only nerds like me actually read Metro press releases – that and the media, who I suppose could also be blamed for dropping the ball on informing folks about this one.

EDIT #2: After the fact, WaPo makes the case that this actually wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Some good points here.

Flying Whale

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