Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Have Metro's 2012 delays driven commuters to take the bus?

May 10, 2012 - 02:16 PM
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Trips in millions. (Photo: WMATA)

Metrorail is by far the dominant mode of transit in Washington, D.C. The average weekday ridership is about 732,000 trips compared to the Metrobus's average weekday record of about 444,000 trips or so. There's a huge difference in favor of the Metro.

But the Metro has created new challenges for its riders in the past year, with breakdowns (offloads, friction rings, a derailment, even the gloom of suicides) along with what has lately been constant track work that often makes the Metro far less convenient, especially on the weekends. No one wants headways of 15 to 30 minutes. The rail system no longer seems as trusty and reliable as a way to get around outside of its weekday rush-hour windows and has, more and more, come to resemble a commuter rail as WMATA rebuilds. As these delays have become depressingly business-as-usual, have residents abandoned the Metrorail in favor of the Metrobus?

The above chart shows the monthly ridership for Metro and Metrobus, in the millions. Today Metro's Board of Directors examined the riderships of both modes in the year to date. In 2012, Metrobus has experienced about 99 million trips compared to about 160 million Metrobus trips. What does that mean? The rail has shown itself to be 1.4 million trips (-1%) below budget but still records 1.1 million trips more than at this time last year. The Metrobus, however, is 7.5 million trips (8%) above budget, with 6.8 million trips (7%) more than this time last year. Consider that difference. Rail ridership still increased by little over a million trips to date this year compared to last, sure, but bus ridership increased by by nearly seven million trips over that same period. 99 million bus trips versus 160 million rail? The bus is catching up. WMATA had expected 91 bus million trips versus about 162 million rail. The transit agency credits the warmer weather, which may be a factor but not the entire story.

Don't expect the broad trends driving away rail riders to disappear either. That fare hike is kicking in within two months, remember, and while it affects both bus and rail, the rail fares are more expensive. Endless weekends of track work are expected to continue — for years. Perhaps some of the trends will be offset by the beginning of expanded service for Rush+ on June 18, but let's wait on that for now. Buses, meanwhile, will start becoming even more attractive starting later this year and especially in 2013 as more and more bus shelters receive real-time arrival signs and as the busiest routes become more reliable, as WMATA pledged to work on starting June 18 in an announcement today. This resurgence flies in the face of past fears, such as in the fall of 2010 when the Post noted "a pattern of dwindling bus ridership and revenue that has contributed to growing budget deficits at Metro."

Then there's the D.C. Circulator, which DDOT Director Terry Bellamy noted had more than 500,000 riders a month back in October. Other transportation options, from Uber to car-sharing to walking to biking, have also received significant attention over the past year and may also be sapping away a certain percentage of rail riders.

Keep watching these bus and rail numbers over the next year or two. The rise in bus riders makes sense given all the changes to the D.C. region's rail system in the last year. WMATA would benefit from encouraging its riders to use bus more than rail, frankly, until the system is finally rebuilt in half a decade. Gridlock may be bad but I'd place my bets on that before single-tracking and offloads.

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