A group of MBA students recently gave Metro some ideas on how to improve bus service as part of an unusual student-initiated competition to make the transit agency better.
And now, Metro officials say they are trying to determine if they can implement the winning idea into a pilot program to speed up how riders board Metrobuses.
The Georgetown University business students had approached the transit agency in the fall. The Business Technology, Innovation and Design Graduate Association wanted to create a student competition for "designing a better community for Washington, D.C." In talking with Metro, they learned the agency wanted to increase bus ridership.
"It was really cool to see them recognize the problem. Internally, they were doing all they can, yet they were open to external ideas," said Maureen Coiro, a first-year MBA student who helped organize the competition.
The club invited students from other local universities, as well. All told, four teams from Georgetown and the University of Virginia's MBA programs competed.
They were tasked with coming up with designs that would be customer-friendly but also work financially.
One group proposed putting televisions on buses that include information about bus stops, sightseeing or advertising information, Coiro said. Another was to better integrate Metro at airports to encourage travelers to take public transportation.
The winning entry was to reduce boarding times on buses with a scanner device similar to an E-ZPass that would let riders board at either the front or back doors without having to swipe a SmarTrip card. The agency says research shows that reducing the time spent on a bus actually increases ridership -- and saves money.
The team's analysis predicted Metro could realize a 14.3 percent reduction in travel time, leading to a 7.5 percent increase in ridership, according to Metro.
They presented their ideas to a team of judges from Metro and around the region. Then, last week, the winning team from Georgetown presented its idea to General Manager Richard Sarles.
"They made a compelling business case for investing in a technology solution that speeds boarding, improves travel time, and improves bus travel time reliability," Sarles wrote in a newsletter.
It's not clear if Metro has ever taken advice from students before. It hasn't happened in recent memory at least, Metro spokesman Cathy Asato said. And will it again? "Perhaps," she said.
The transit agency does use extensive outside advice, often in the form of paid consultants. In February, The Washington Examiner reported the transit agency was paying more than $51 million to outside consultants.
But all this idea apparently cost Metro was several $100 SmarTrip cards to award as prizes and staff time.