Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metrorail attracts more riders in 2012 but slower than national average

June 4, 2012 - 11:07 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

More and more people are choosing to ride the Metro and the bus in the D.C. region, and across the country, to take public transportation, but the growth locally continues to favor the bus over rail as opposed to national trends. This morning the American Public Transportation Association released its national figures on ridership and notes a nationwide public transportation increase of 5% more trips now than this time last year — 2.7 billion trips were taken in the first quarter of 2012, more than 125 million more trips than in the first quarter of 2011. Light rail was up 6.7%, heavy rail was up 5.5%, and large bus systems rose by 4.6%.

Locally, the number of Metrorail and Metrobus riders have increased over these same months but, as noted earlier this year, at very different paces. The bus is the real victor here in D.C. Our city ranks among the top-10 cities in which large bus systems grew, with a 7.8% increase in trips.

More people have also chosen to ride WMATA's rails but not as many as the transit agency predicted and at a lower percentage of increase than in many transit agencies across the nation. The jump in the first quarter of 2012 was 2.82%, around half of what the national average heavy rail increase was. Why the slower frequency of growth for Metrorail riders? WMATA predicted more people are choosing the bus for reasons such as the warmer-than-average year we've been experiencing. Another reality of the past year is institutionalized WMATA track work that causes certain transit stations to shut down and headways to rise considerably at certain times. Other vocal complaints focus on the service of the Metro trains as well as the mechanical dysfunction that the Metro Forward campaign seeks to fix. Consider the busted escalators or the occasional faulty display sign. Far more people ride the rail than the bus overall (WMATA trains receive close to 300,000 more riders on average than the buses every day) but notable trends have begun influencing the rate at which people are choosing these different modes of transportation. Other factors, such as the promise of Rush+ service as well as the dread of higher fares, also loom, and prominent influences may include a rising number of commuters choosing to walk, bike, or car-share throughout D.C.

The other potential influence on WMATA rail ridership is safety and the impression of safety, especially due to some prominent incidents in the last few months. Last week the National Transportation Safety board released reports on WMATA incidents from 2009 and 2010 and pointed to negligence and problems. A glance reveals troubling phrases such as the following: "...inadequate communication of vital information concerning the ongoing work on the tacks by the Operations Control Center to the on-track maintenance vehicle." Not good. Yet the NTSB also cites WMATA's "proactive" actions in response since these events occurred years ago: "improvements to procedures to provide better protection to all roadway workers, the issuance of a new Roadway Workers Protection Manual, and upgrades to all hi-rail vehicles." All right, good. But so often this pattern — a problem first, and then a rush of fixes — seems to characterize the business of Metro lately. The impulse to fix is good and correct and worth lauding but the incidents have piled up. A train derails, Metro train doors open while the train is in motion, a defibrillator lacks working batteries, a Metro worker is critically injured at the Shady Grove Yard. The broader mission of Metro Forward is to fix those problems, however, and in half a decade, the work's pace will perhaps ease up. It's unclear how these safety incidents and reports have affected the Metrorail riders but they speak to the critical question of trust a rider must place in the local transit agency.

For now, the bus may continue to break out with new appeal in our local public transportation world, especially as D.C. buses receive new innovations like real-time arrival signs and more investment. WMATA recently announced it would invest $5 million in its bus service over the course of the next year to improve service. "More than 150,000 customers — roughly one third of all bus customers — will benefit from more frequent service, additional capacity, expanded hours of operation on selected MetroExtra routes," the agency says.

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