I moved to the DC area from New York almost five years ago. I’ve taken the Washington Metro almost daily since then. Like most who’ve been paying attention to the news I’ve been deeply saddened by the accident and the horrible loss of life on the metro earlier this week. I’ve also been disappointed, though hardly surprised, by the actions of the metro system leading up to, and in the aftermath of the accident.
What do I mean by this? Reports indicate that the train cars involved were overdue for service and that the NTSB had recommended - years ago - that the type of car involved in the accident be put out of service. After the accident commuters expressed frustration at the Metro’s inability to update them with accurate information. The communication issue isn’t reserved for the Metro system, according to this article in the Washington Post the mayor’s office is coming in for some criticism as well.
The problem at the heart of all this isn’t that Metro employees aren’t doing their jobs, it’s that the system doesn’t have the money, or the operating structure to conduct long term planning and replace aging equipment.
I’m convinced - and have been for some time - that the reason for this stems, in large part, from inadequate communications.
For the past five years I’ve ridden the metro because it’s safer, more cost effective and more efficient than my only other option: driving. I’m what you might describe as a loyal customer. I have a stake in the system.
But every single day I see equipment out of order that goes unexplained or experience delays or random stops and starts that are given a perfunctory and wholly inadequate explanation. On more than one occasion, when the system does post a sign explaining maintenance, I’ve seen the end-date for the maintenance pushed back with no reason given for the obvious lack of progress. It goes without saying that there is no meaningful attempt at rider engagement.
This bothers me. Not because I’m left uniformed but because I want a metro system that doesn’t have budgetary or long term planning problems and because the system doesn’t appear to make any attempt to engage and activate me (and others) to help make that a reality.
In any endeavor, but especially those involving the general public, solutions stem from building a constituency, getting people invested in rectifying a problem, rallying them to take some sort of action.
Accomplishing this takes understanding your constituency; it involves giving them the information they need to be your best and most committed evangelists; it requires being agile and flexible enough to communicate with them on their own terms and through their preferred channels; it necessitates qualities of transparency and empathy, speed and clarity.
It takes a serious approach to listening and talking. It takes a communicator.
The Washington Metro has established a relief fund for the victims but I’m not sure if it’s taking outside contributions. It’s always a good idea to donate to your local Red Cross chapter, however.
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