Should BART try money back guarantee to lure back riders? It's working in Washington DC

ByJennifer Olney KGO logo
Tuesday, March 3, 2020
Washington DC's Metro has a lesson for BART on how to lure back transit riders
Washington D.C.'s Metro system is very similar to BART but there is a key difference: Metro's ridership went up 4% last year, and BART's ridership was down.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Take a quick look at Washington D.C.'s Metro system and you might think you are looking at BART. But there is a key difference: Metro's ridership went up 4% last year, as BART's ridership was down. Metro's improvement comes after a decade of decline. So we wondered, what is Metro doing to win back riders?

The Metro opened in 1976, just four years after BART. The two were considered sister systems, with similar technology and design. Both were modern first-class transit and the envy of the world. But in the past decade, both systems hit a mid-life crisis, with equipment well past its prime.


After several major safety issues in Metro tunnels, Congress stepped in with extra money and a new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, who took over in 2015.

"We lost credibility with our customers and with our stakeholders," Wiedefeld said. So he launched a new philosophy he called "safety trumps service."

Metro started buying new state-of-the-art cars, and last year Wiedefeld actually shut down six stations for the entire summer, giving workers time to do a complete overhaul and update. This coming summer, more stations will be shut down for the same procedure.

The shutdowns were tough on riders, so to encourage riders to come back, Metro offered a money back guarantee.

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"We call it rush hour promise, that if your trip is more than 10 minutes late, you automatically get a refund for your fare," Wiedefeld explained.

You have to have an account, similar to the BART's Clipper Card, to get the refund. Once you enter the fare gate, Metro's computers track your trip, and if it takes too long, a refund shows up in your account automatically.

East Bay Congressman Mark DeSaulnier is a regular on BART when he is at home, and he also rides the Metro in Washington. He says the new policies are working.

"Their customer service approval ratings have gone from the 30s to now 75%. So, in some ways, this isn't rocket science. If you're reliable, it's safe and it's clean, people will ride the train," DeSaulnier said.

Just like BART, Metro is facing problems with fare evaders, but in that case they have not had a lot of success. Washington DC recently decriminalized fare evasion, so enforcement is very challenging.

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