Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

District residents ride transit far more than D.C. metro area commuters

February 15, 2012 - 09:07 AM
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(Photo: flickr/elvertbarnes)

The Washington, D.C. area lays claim to the third highest share of transit riders in the country, multiple headlines have proclaimed this week, after New York and San Francisco. DCist noted the numbers Tuesday morning. But although the numbers are fair enough, do they really capture transit in D.C.? According to the Washington Business Journal ranking, 399,415 commuters in D.C. used public transit to get to work out of about 2.86 million ... that's 13.93% of people in the region.

But it's important to remember why the percentage may sound so low and to take a closer look at how transit use differs throughout the region. The Business Journal analyzed the D.C. metro area, not the much smaller region of D.C.  The metro area is huge and includes surrounding lands like Arlington and Alexandria. The difference between the two (D.C. metro area and the District) is dramatic when you talk transit.

In the District, about 113,600 resident commuters out of about 296,700 took public transportation, according to 2010 American Community Survey numbers ... more than 38%. The difference has District residents using transit about 25% more than what the region's overall commuters, which includes those very District residents, embrace: 38% in the Distrct versus 13.93% in the region overall. The difference is even more staggering if you simply examine the number of commuters who don't travel in a car, which combines the Metro riders, the walkers, the bicyclists, and so on. Then the number of non-drivers rises to 58.9%. By the numbers, only about four in 10 D.C. residents drive to work.

These statistical realities underscore the divide between our broader Metro region and our city as well as point to how D.C. transit works. Quantitatively, more people outside the District than inside take public transportation, but those inside are far more likely to do so, and this likelihood matters.

Two obstacles affect transit use in the parts of the D.C. metro area beyond the city lines. First is the question of reach. The Metro is convenient enough if you live near stops and really can tap the accessibility it brings, and that accessibility is highest if you live near its heart. Our five Metro lines snake outward from the center but rarely connect outside the core of the city. I live in Petworth but if I want to reach Woodley Park — a place that's not geographically far, even — I can't go there directly. I have to first travel south and transfer to the Red Line at Gallery Place. These concerns grow more pronounced the farther along the Metro lines you travel. In turn, driving makes sense the farther from the center you go. I would hop in a car to get to Bethesda before I would ever imagine trying to take the Metro all the way there. A connecting line such as the proposed Purple one may alleviate some of these issues, but for now, one limitation to the Metro is the nature of its design. The bus system helps alleviate some of these concerns but it has its own obstacles and many look first to rail. Its current layout greatly benefits those within the city, however, and makes Metro ideal for getting around in that enclosed territory.

Second comes the variable convenience and difficulty of parking. It's a nightmare in many parts of D.C. yet by contrast, not too bad once you distance yourself from the center of the city. Car ownership simply doesn't make sense for many in D.C. given its costs (more than $8,000 a year, the Office of Planning estimates) and the greater accessibility of transit in the city center, alluded to above.

To say that only 14% of the D.C. metro region commutes by transit is correct but don't forget the nearly 60% in the District itself who don't commute by car. Numbers can create a misleading impression about how transportation works in our city if you don't parse them enough.

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