Matt Hilburn, who fought for ‘Unsuck’ Metro, dies at 54

Matt Hilburn, a journalist and communications specialist best known for creating and running the popular and ruthless Unsuck DC Metro transportation social media account, died July 17 at his home in Arlington, Virginia. He was 54 years old.

The cause was complications from kidney cancer that had metastasized, said her father, Paul Hilburn.

For the past 11 years, Mr. Hilburn had been a high-profile online reporter at Voice of America. Among previous jobs, he worked in public relations with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; was associate editor of Seapower, a publication of the Navy League of the United States; was a freelance journalist in Spain; and was an English teacher in Japan.

In 2009, Mr Hilburn launched his Unsuck DC Metro blog to air personal rebukes to the area’s public rail and bus transport, the Metro. To avoid distraction in his daily duties and reduce what he said was a salvo of personal threats from Metro employees, he blogged and tweeted anonymously. It wasn’t the only social or traditional medium to chronicle Metro’s craziness, but its forums (its Twitter feed had nearly 81,000 subscribers) were among the most entertaining and avidly followed by competitors.

“I think Mr. Unsuck is right that Metro is too complacent about deteriorating standards,” former Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney wrote of Mr. Hilburn in 2009, granting him anonymity. “The shortcomings described on his blog and others who follow Metro, while anecdotal, offer a damning portrait of faulty habits.”

Largely circumventing political setbacks on funding and leadership issues, Mr. Hilburn wrote about derailments and other emergencies, and kept the conversation going about mundane mishaps and disappointments from a passenger perspective. He chastised the “sloppy” customer service system that daily commuters, like him, have paid steadily rising fares to endure.

He said he received a torrent of emails and photographs from correspondents – fellow passengers – reporting train delays, uncomfortably long and unexplained stops in dark tunnels, indecipherable station announcements on the public address system , bus drivers who disregarded cornering safety and broken transit card vending machines.

Having traveled extensively abroad, Mr. Hilburn saw a system at home that was decaying and in disarray compared to those he had used in Asia and Europe. “In Japan, it’s pretty much error-free,” he said. “Expectations are lower here. It looks like Metro is ducking things rather than tackling them head-on.

His posts could take on a derogatory tone, calling most transit reporters “accomplices” and once suggesting the top 10 reasons why dogs would be better suited to handing out tasks performed by Metro employees. Its publications, other transit writers have observed, have evolved from a well-researched overview of agency functions or dysfunctions to missives targeting low-level subway employees, sometimes by name.

At other times, Mr. Hilburn came off as a guy who just wanted the system to work without quirkiness, and that included the other passengers behaving selfishly and grotesquely. He lambasted those who put wet umbrellas on the seats or performed personal care, leaving behind more than their diary for the next unfortunate.

On Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU public affairs show in 2016, Metro union president Jackie Jeter accused Mr Hilburn of letting racist tropes seep into his commentary stream. She said he allowed readers to use coded language about “lazy” city workers, most of whom were black.

“Is the Washington Post racist because weirdos appear on their website and make racist comments?” he has answered.

He denied that race mattered as a concern for Metro – rather it was “catastrophic quality of service and fatal accidents”, he said. “Incompetence is color blind.”

Matthew Paul Hilburn was born in Falls Church, Virginia on March 7, 1968, and he accompanied his family to Europe and Latin America for his father’s career as a foreign service political officer. Her mother was a school librarian.

He graduated in 1986 from WT Woodson High School in Fairfax County, earned a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia in 1990, and received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1999.

An early marriage ended in divorce. Survivors include her parents, Paul and Rowena Hilburn of Annandale, Virginia.

As a writer and editor, Mr. Hilburn was particularly infuriated by typographical errors on Metro brochures – a problem he saw as a symbol of greater inattention and recklessness. He once showed a Post reporter a 2006 train pass in which a word in “Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority,” the parent agency, was misspelled as “Metropolitan.”

If he ever considered his quest to improve the Underground as Sisyphean, he has not revealed it publicly. He tried to cultivate contacts among Metro’s workforce and filed numerous FOIA requests to better understand Metro’s processes.

With backing from the conservative legal foundation Judicial Watch, he unsuccessfully sued for access to a 2018 survey questionnaire. “He couldn’t quite swallow the fact that something that had been derived from public interviews had been deprived of public display,” his father said.

This obituary has been updated with various quotes about Mr. Hilburn.

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