The kids don't think transit is cool anymore. That's the stunning conclusion reached by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)—the agency responsible for running the Washington, D.C.-area's troubled Metro rail service—at its board meeting this past Friday.
It is of course no secret that Metro has been hemorrhaging riders in recent years, thanks to a mix of service cutbacks, station closures, and the occasional fire. This fall in users has been most pronounced among younger riders, with those under 30 taking 21 percent fewer trips in April 2018 than they were in April 2016, according to transit consultancy firm Teralytics.
Fortunately, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, has a plan to win back the youths, and it involves making the Metro into more of an "experience" akin to millennials' favorite grocery store.
"You can get groceries anywhere, but the Whole Foods experience is different than someplace else," said Wiedefeld at a Friday WMATA board meeting. "Why do they do it? Because there's a market for it and it drives revenue. So we have to come at transit that way. Places all over the world have tried it and we have to recognize that…and not just do it the way we've been doing it."
To replicate that one-of-a-kind, Instagrammable experience, WMATA is proposing to open up more vending options in and around Metro stations.
Food would, of course, still be banned in the stations and on the trains. Metro did however give a few examples of the fun, youth-orientated concessions that might appear in stations, including photo booths, DVD rental boxes, "games", package delivery lockers, and electronic charging stations.
To be sure, allowing greater commercialization of Metro stations is not a bad idea. The idea that riders of any age will come flocking back to a failing public transit system because it has DVDs is laughable however.
That's because millennials, despite whatever differences they might have with older generations, are less interested in Metro being an "experience" (Metro is arguably already an experience, just not a good one), and are more interested in it being a reliable transit service.
Indeed, this is the conclusion reached by an internal WMATA report from May that found the key to boosting ridership involved some real meat-and-potato changes like increasing hours of service, upping the frequency of trains, and running only eight-car trains, as opposed to the current mix of six- and eight-car trains.
Metro leadership bizarrely claimed that they had no knowledge of that report when stories about it first surfaced in October, and WMATA board members have so far declined to commit to increasing train service.
But as the system braces for another wave of station closures this coming summer, and transit alternatives like ridesharing and dockless scooters continue to gain popularity, it's worth considering whether D.C.'s long-suffering commuters might want reliable Red Line trains a little more than Redbox rentals.
Rent Free is a weekly newsletter from Christian Britschgi on urbanism and the fight for less regulation, more housing, more property rights, and more freedom in America's cities.