Technology in Transit

Once a technology innovator and the jewel of American public transit, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) of Washington DC is facing an unprecedented crisis. Can technology help propel WMATA through this crisis and into the future?

As an early adopter of technology, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) of Washington DC has been at the forefront of public transit innovation. Over the last 20 years, digital innovation has improved rider experience – making public transit easier to use, more reliable, faster to use, and more transparent. However, problems with its operational practices have recently reached a critical point that creates many difficulties, but also many opportunities moving forward.

Current Challenges

Once considered the jewel of American public transit systems, WMATA is now facing an unprecedented crisis. A fatality and 84 hospitalizations caused by a smoke-filled tunnel made national headlines last year, but the issues run much deeper than this serious one-time incident.1 With maintenance backlogs, safety issues, decreasing ridership, financial problems, and the lowest ever on-time performance in 2015 (84%), WMATA is being forced to take drastic actions to protect its future. 2,3

Last year, WMATA brought in a new CEO, Paul Wiedefeld, to turn around the agency.4 Much to the ire of the public, he closed the entire rail system for 24 hours in March to perform emergency safety checks on hundreds of electric cables, and in June he rolled out a yearlong infrastructure repair process that shuts down busy rail segments for extended time periods. 5,6

With over 337 million trips last year, WMATA is one of the biggest transit departments in the United States in terms of ridership.7 Strained customer confidence, however, is hurting the reputation of the system. What can WMATA do to improve satisfaction and prevent this maintenance nightmare from reoccurring? Perhaps WMATA can look to its past to gain insights for how to propel itself into the future.

An Innovative Past

WMATA has a history of embracing digital technology to better serve its riders and improve operations. Some examples in the last few decades include the following:

  • 1999 – Contactless Smart Cards – WMATA is the first transit authority in the U.S. to deploy system-wide contactless smart cards.8 This innovation provides many convenience benefits for customers, including faster entry into buses or trains, seamless transfer between rail and bus, and lose-proof transit cards (money tied to an account rather than a physical ticket). For WMATA, it also enables data tracking of passenger trips and facilitates more sophisticated fare structures based on distance or peak times.8
  • wmata-train-sign2000 – Displays with Real-time Train Predictions – Using GPS technology, WMATA installs electronic signage in metro rail stations showing next train arrival time estimates.9 With greater transparency, riders now can know how long their wait will be.
  • 2000 – Integration of Communications System – WMATA institutes an integrated radio communication system for police, bus, rail and maintenance employees (the first U.S. transit authority to do so), which improves operational information flows.10
  • 2004-2007 – Modernization of IT System – WMATA consolidates 80 different computer systems into 3 systems including timekeeping, financial reporting, capital project and maintenance management, bus and train scheduling, and budgeting.11 Integrating these business processes leads to better communication, more automation, and a 95% reduction in payroll errors.11
  • 2010Publicly Share Bus and Rail Location Data – WMATA opens its extensive real-time data to external software and mobile app developers, contributing to more reliable service and better customer satisfaction.12, 13 In 2015, WMATA received 1.2 billion calls (app user requesting a piece of data) through these third party apps. 14

Transit Data Publicly Provided by Major Transit Systems (in 2010) 15


Number of Requests for WMATA API Data (2011- Jan 2016) 14


  • 2014-2015 – Bus Stop Displays with Real-time Predictions – similar to its train stations, WMATA installs next bus electronic signage at 170 bus stops.16, 17
  • 2014 – Partnership with Tech Startup – Urban Engines (now owned by Google) helps WMATA streamline passenger entry and exit data (enabled by smart cards) to visualize travel patterns and recognize congestion, delays, and rail platform crowding. 18 WMATA director of planning boasts that “we are now able to get a granular view into our transit system across all stations in 15-minute increments.” 18 This allows WMATA to make informed operating decisions to improve passenger experience.

A Path to the Future?

With smart cards and real-time predictions, WMATA used technology to improve service. With serious maintenance problems going forward, however, no rider mobile app or travel pattern analysis can mitigate looming reliability challenges. Although unexpected delays, shutdowns, and safety concerns cannot be fixed overnight, technology and sensors offer a possible long-term solution to prevent this crisis from happening again. A digital transformation of it maintenance model – by installing remote sensors throughout the system – could help WMATA identify when preventive maintenance is needed (reliability-centered maintenance) before it is too late.19

While emerging technology can improve the WMATA operating model, it also poses a threat to disrupt the entire system. The same sensors that can improve WMATA also enable a digital transformation in the automotive industry – whether ride sharing or autonomous vehicles – that threatens to change the usage of public transit. Time will tell if WMATA can stay relevant or if it will slowly disappear from the map.

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BMW and the Impact of Digital Transformation

Student comments on Technology in Transit

  1. Having watched the system degrade first hand, I am skeptical that this is a technology problem. While digitized monitoring and management of maintenance might help, this seems more of management problem. Years, if not decades, of neglected maintenance have finally caught up with the system. While Wiedefeld’s plan is certainly inconvenient, I hope it’s the first step toward improving the reliability and safety of the whole system. It’s always good to innovate, and given WMATA’s history, it seems likely they will continue to do so. As long as they realize that isn’t a silver bullet and Wiedefeld heralds a new era of proactive management, I look forward to the improvements.

  2. It sounds like WMATA’s history of championing technology has served it well to date, but I think it may be ill-equipped to handle the competing technologies that may make WMATA obsolete moving forward. The cost of ridesharing and automonous vehicles are decreasing while public transportation systems are becoming increasingly expensive. In some situations public transportation has already become more expensive than ridesharing:

  3. Neat post, Matt! Building off Sam’s comment, have you seen any evidence of WMATA or metro authorities in other US cities making any plans to revise their operating models based on the recent uptick in ride sharing? Should a public agency like WMATA see Uber as a competitive threat and consider closing railway lines that are not likely to remain sustainable in the long run as the cost of ride sharing drops, or should WMATA ignore Uber and maintain its current business model of providing the public with access to all parts of the city? What balance should transit authorities strike between anticipating and preparing for the next generation of transportation and maintaining their current offerings?

    1. Interesting points. In response to your and Sam’s comments, I think that public transit will still have a place in the future because disruptions like Uber are only as good as the roads they travel on (which are still government-funded). By having separate travel space for subways or dedicated bus lanes, public transit can still be superior to Uber during rush shower. Where Uber is able to compete though is during non-peak times or against buses or streetcars that share the same roads during traffic.

  4. Very interesting post! WMATA seems to be in a tense position in that the technology it seeks to improve its offering is perhaps the technology that will make it obsolete in the future. Specifically, I think this comes up in financing decision for the future. Should WMATA just focus on overdue maintenance and improvement costs or additionally invest in new technology for its “future” platform. I imagine that it will be difficult for the government to secure the funds for the latter and doubly so since there is no guarantee of the train system’s solid place in the future of transporation.

    Page 17:

    1. Thanks for sharing the really interesting report!

  5. The struggles facing WMATA should concern all of us! As someone who is consistently alarmed by both the neglect of our public transportation infrastructure and the over-reliance we have in private and for-profit on-demand transportation solutions (Uber), I worry that the bench at WMATA is not deep enough to solve their problems. Public transportation works because a community collectively agrees that it’s a public good, usually worth subsidizing with taxes and other investments. As wealthier residents of cities like DC, NYC, and Boston move away from aging, under-funded and under-performing public transit systems, the voices and revenues of these commuters disappear from the conversation about what happens with public transit. Boston has faced this problem as well. Recently, Boston attempted to implement a late-night service on weekends, primarily aimed at young urban commuters. The system proved to be too expensive and didn’t attract enough riders (perhaps in part because of the reliance on companies like Uber) . It worries me because when higher-income people can afford private taxi services (Uber is not ridehsaring, we seem pretty comfortable leaving lower-income folks out to make do without public transit.

  6. Nice post!

    With WMATA I wonder what are the technology enabled features that are providing values to riders? I think there is a major value add for riders to know wait times for trains and buses, but is that the primary reason they choose public transit over Uber? It would be great if all the data WMATA collected could increase efficiency by both augmenting the regularity and number of trains. Or, if the data could help uncover potential cost-savings that the government could pass on to consumers. I still can’t perceive if the WMATA’s–like the MBTA’s–model of public transportation in an era of rising costs and stiff private competition will be viable in the future. Should we double down on public investment in public transit, or step back to completely re-evaluate the model?

  7. As a former frequent (and grumpy) user of the WMATA system, it’s personally fascinating to see that it actually has been a technology leader in the past. Seeing as how their main problem nowadays seems to be one of reliability and neglect, I wonder how much additional technology they’re able to bring to bear to address and fix many of the long-festering issues of neglect and basic safety that have arisen? A few other countries and systems (e.g., the Dubai Metro) have also transitioned entirely to non-driver operated cars. I wonder if the technology improvements on the WMATA system in the near future will allow them to make that move as well?

  8. Interesting post! As a reference, public transportation in Japan is highly developed (all the major cities offer railway service) and is said to be very safe. Every railway is surveyed by several systems including sensors, but I think the main reason why it is so safe (e.g. Shinkansen has never caused a serious accident since its inception in 1964) is that of the highly structured operation. Technology can certainly help to enhance safety, but I believe that just by itself it will not be sufficient; human capital and operation management is also an important factor.

  9. Enjoyed your article, Matt — WMATA provides an interesting example of ways technological interventions may solely create value for the consumer without meaningfully benefiting the organization’s operational efficiency goals. It’s interesting to think about ways the IoT could contribute to preventative maintenance going forward — the sensors example is a great one. Conor makes an excellent point about the distributional impacts of public transit that should compel us to ensure its survival. Have you come across the “Smart City” literature? Essentially, a corpus of policies and innovations that integrate the IoT with urban planning. Many of this work is actually predicated upon the assumption that rail will be the most common form of transit in our increasingly urbanized world. In addition to your point about remote sensing, there’s talk of robots that can inspect tunnels and bridges, repair water pipes, and test load-bearing cables. See here!

  10. Great post! It’s interesting to see how far the transit system has come as far as technology. Mobil apps are very convenient not only for determining potential routes, but also giving live up to date information on train/bus status. I do think moving forward that the next step is to address maintenance and downtime. If every X days or hours a certain maintenance activity must occur, I think an app should be able to identify this downtime and communicate it to passengers. I look forward to seeing what improvement will come in the future.

  11. Technology is expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as the capital improvements needed by WMATA. Hopefully, the system pulls through and serves as an example for cities. Beyond transport, I understand there are cities waiting to be built based on WMATA’s expansion plans (Silver and Purple lines). Tremendous economic development could be derailed if this turnaround does not pull through.

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