FILE PHOTO: ALEXANDER BROWN/THE HOYA  Approximately 400 unsatisfied public transportation users from the D.C. area formed an independent Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Riders’ Union last week to address their concerns.
Approximately 400 unsatisfied public transportation users from the D.C. area formed an independent Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Riders’ Union last week to address their concerns.

A group of Washington, D.C. Metro users formed the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Riders’ Union Sept. 3 in response to consistent transit issues and rider frustration.
The Riders’ Union, an independent organization made up of approximately 400 riders, seeks to represent the interests of Metrorail, Metrobus and MetroAccess users. The union intends to work with community groups, the media, officials and WMATA employees to address the concerns of the riding public.

Riders’ Union spokesperson Graham Jenkins emphasized the group’s goal in actively listening to and representing the voice of Metro riders.

“We represent the voice of the riders, the feedback, criticism and changes people would like to be seeing in the Transit Authority,” Jenkins said. “Somebody should be taking those concerns into account. We’re trying to be truly representative and nonexclusionary, to hear everyone’s voice, not just a limited subset, and not just the loudest either.”

Chris Barnes, another Metro user leading the group, began operating a blog titled FixWMATA in 2010 with goals similar to those of the Riders’ Union. Business analyst Roger Bowles and transit specialist Ashley Robbins are the two other principal figures in the group.

According to the Riders’ Union website, WMATA has struggled to respond to train derailments and excessive delays while often neglecting users’ points of view. Additionally, the website details frustrations with WMATA’s system of charging users for a commute they did not take if they swipe in at a station but attempt to leave after seeing the rail service is running late.

Specifically, the union has outlined both strategic and operational goals it aims to achieve after establishing its membership.

Strategic goals include obtaining rider representation on the WMATA board of directors and rider involvement in WMATA drills and incident investigations. However, the District, Maryland, Virginia and Congress would all have to pass a law before any rider could acquire a seat on the board of directors.
Operational goals include seeking the elimination of “peak” fares between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and a grace period for same-station entrance and exit before users are charged.

“For the time being, [our goals] fit into two categories,” Jenkins said. “We’re looking to push the [Transit] Authority into communicating better. You look at the [Transit] Authorities across the country, in New York, in Boston, and they’re very active in publicizing all the work they do.”

More than 400 people have completed the membership form on the Riders’ Union website, and the group’s Twitter account has more than 1,100 followers. No dues will be required to maintain accessibility. An agreement form will be created for members to consent to certain principles regarding dues and donation.

The Riders’ Union does not yet have a definite plan for funding but is considering a combination of private donations and crowdsourcing strategies, such as GoFundMe. The group also plans to host monthly meetings.

Along with Barnes’ FixWMATA blog, past campaigns have been initiated in response to challenges Metro users face. MetroTag, a group also formed by Barnes, focuses on issues concerning all D.C. transit, covering a larger scope than the Riders’ Union, which will only focus on WMATA matters.

Meanwhile, the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, established in 2005, consists of 21 members and reports directly to the WMATA board of directors, acting as a focus group. It is not independent of WMATA.

Monthly council meetings are open to the public and applications to serve on the council are always available online. At the start of every session, members of the public are given the opportunity to address the council.

Although the official WMATA council provides riders with the opportunity to air their grievances, Jenkins said the Riders’ Union is a more effective forum for change.

“We’re looking to raise awareness of some of [the riders’] concerns, and certainly to push for specific policy goals and changes we’d like to see implemented,” Jenkins said. “In that aspect, we’ll be different from previous attempts at this sort of thing, such as the Riders’ Advisory Council, in that we’re not just presenting WMATA with issues, we are recommending changes and we’re going for specific policy goals.”

Steven Xie (COL ’18), who has frequently used D.C. public transportation to commute to an internship at the Executive Office of the Mayor in D.C., expressed both hope and doubt about the success of the Riders’ Union.

“First of all, I’m not too sure they’ll get everything they desire, because things like delays and accidents, they happen all the time,” Xie said. “But what I do think they can really do is bring some accountability into Metro services, which is the biggest complaint I’ve had riding the Metro. … I think it’s a good initiative, the Union, and hopefully it can bring some positive change to the staff of the Metro system.”
Lauren Stricker (SFS ’18), another frequent Metro user, was also even less optimistic about the Union’s feasibility.

“I don’t think forming a union is worth all of the time, effort and resources when its central goal of communicating the needs and wants of riders could be achieved in a less formal and more immediate way,” Stricker said.

WMATA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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