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Who rides (and will ride) transit in Greater Washington?

About one in seven workers in the DC area commutes to work via public transportation, higher than any other large American metropolitan area outside of New York. But where and how we take transit to work will make increasing ridership a challenge.

Photo by techne on Flickr.

A new study by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis (CRA) reveals many surprising insights about the region's transit commuters. Naturally, transit ridership is highest in the region's core and near Metro stations. But there are also many well-heeled, outer-suburban commuters who use transit by choice, and low-income suburban workers for whom transit is a lifeline.

These two populations will present a challenge to the region as it continues to grow. With limited resources making a massive transit expansion unlikely, we'll have to focus on smaller improvements in service, as well as encouraging transit-oriented development in suburban communities to encourage "reverse commutes," taking advantage of excess capacity on Metro.

The percentage of transit users will stay the same

According to new data from the American Community Survey, 14.3% of Washington-area residents commuted to work via public transportation during the three-year period covering 2010-2012. We're in second place among the 10 largest US metro areas, though first-place New York is far higher at 31%. Our transit use is higher than "older" areas that are often thought of as more transit-friendly, such as Boston (12%), Chicago (12%), and Philadelphia (9%).

But the overall share of Washington-area commuters who travel to work via public transit has changed little since 1990, and it is not expected to increase much in the future. In 1990, about 13% of all commuters in the area used transit. Looking ahead, a 2012 CRA study projected it will only be about 15% in 2040. While more people are now riding the bus and train to work, there are also more drivers, as well as more teleworkers and more people who walk or bike to work.

Where you live and where you work determines whether you use transit

Not surprisingly, more commuters use transit in some areas than others. DC residents are the most likely to commute via public transit, at 38.7%, followed by Arlington (27.2%), Alexandria (20.2%), Prince George's (17.6%), and Montgomery (15.6%). Fairfax (9.2%), Charles (7.0%), and Prince William (5.7%) are the only other major jurisdictions where more than 5% of commuters use transit.

The percentage of transit users by county and CDP (Census-Designated Places). All images by the author.

The above map shows the transit commuter shares for the region's major Census-Designated Places (CDPs), which include both incorporated and unincorporated cities, along with the shares in the balance of each county. There are nine CDPs in the region in which at least 20 percent of residents commute to work by transit: Chillum, Silver Spring, Suitland, Landover, North Bethesda, Wheaton, Rockville, Langley Park, and Bailey's Crossroads.

While income levels vary greatly in these areas, they all have frequent, high-capacity transit service. All of them but Langley Park and Bailey's Crossroads are located immediately adjacent to Metro stations, while those two areas both have frequent bus service and high shares of residents who do not have access to vehicles and are thus considered "transit dependent."

Median earnings and transit commuter shares by CDP in metro area.

Conversely, CDPs in the region with the lowest rates of transit use are far from Metro stations. This group includes some of the most affluent parts of the region, like McLean, Potomac, Franklin Farm, and South Riding, as well as places with moderate earning levels such as Sterling, Chantilly, and Ashburn.

Transit share by place of work.

However, where you work is a stronger determinant of whether you commute by transit than where you live. Among those with jobs in the District of Columbia, 36.9% take a train or bus to work, compared with 22.0% in Arlington and just 12.0% in Alexandria. The transit shares are considerably lower for those with jobs in the inner suburbs, particularly in Fairfax County, where just 3.2% of workers take transit to work. For those who work in areas beyond the reach of Metrorail, just 1.1% of commuters use transit.

Transit commuters vary depending on where they live and work

For the whole region, transit commuters have almost the exact same median income ($50,203) as for all commuters ($50,288). For residents of DC, Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington, and Alexandria, those who commute by transit have either similar or lower incomes than do all commuters. But some transit commuters have higher incomes, like in Fairfax ($11,000 difference), Loudoun ($22,000 difference), and Prince William ($23,000 difference). Transit commuters living in these areas are clearly using buses and trains to access higher paying jobs in closer-in locations.

Median earnings summary for area commuters.

Meanwhile, those who take transit to jobs in suburban locations earn far less, while commuters working in either DC or Arlington earn about the same as all commuters. In Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince George's, and Prince William counties, the median earnings for transit commuters is less than half those of all commuters. This disparity is largely due to the fact that many people who take transit to jobs in these outlying locations are lower-income, transit dependent workers.

Just 4% of residents living in the region's outer suburbs (all areas outside of DC, Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery, Prince George's, and Fairfax) commute via transit. But they stand out from closer-in transit commuters in three key ways:

1. More than half (52%) of outer-suburban transit commuters work for a local, state, or federal government agency. By comparison, just 26% of all outer ring residents work for the government. In the inner ring, 32% of all transit commuters are government employees.

2. Outer-ring transit commuters have very long commute times, at a mean of 76 minutes. That's almost twice as much as the mean travel time for all outer-ring residents of 39 minutes. Transit commuters in Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's have an average travel time of 52 minutes, while it's just 37 minutes in DC, Alexandria, and Arlington.

3. Transit commuters from the outer suburbs use transit by choice, not by necessity. While 24% of the region's transit commuters do not have access to a vehicle, fewer than 3% of outer-ring transit commuters have no vehicles.

What does this mean for future transit?

It's clear that more people will commute via public transit where transit is readily available. As a result, it's tempting to argue that the region can overcome congestion simply by aggressively expanding its transit network.

This approach ignores two critical points. First, while some expansions are likely to occur, financial and political realities will prevent many large projects from being built. Second, the current profile of transit riders offers many opportunities to increase ridership simply by increasing service or developing near existing transit.

There are three things the region's already doing that will likely boost transit ridership:

  • Increasing the number of seats and frequency of service on existing suburb-to-core transit routes. To their credit, WMATA, MARC, VRE, and regional bus operators are all already working to expand the capacity on their existing routes, but more can be done.
  • Increasing commercial development around outlying transit stations. This will allow more people living in the region's core to "reverse commute," making use of excess capacity in the transit system. Proposals to relocate the FBI headquarters to Greenbelt or Springfield, along with Prince George's County's plans for the southern Green Line are excellent models for this approach.
  • Encourage transit-oriented development (TOD) around future rail transit. There are already a number of examples of TODs in the region that were planned around future transit lines, most notably King Farm and Crown along the planned Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County. Even if proposed high-capacity transit lines do not materialize, these types of developments can encourage expanded commuter bus service and can limit non-commuting vehicle trips by locating shopping and dining closer to where people live.
While these approaches are helping the region battle its legendary traffic congestion, it's impossible to ignore the prediction that more than 75% of the region's commuters will still drive to work in 2040. And the region will have several hundred thousand more residents by then.

If the Washington metro area continues to grow in the same way it has before, it's reasonable to expect that congestion and its related problems will cause residents and businesses to leave. In order to remain competitive, our region clearly must do more to expand the appeal of transit.

David Versel is a Senior Research Associate with the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis. 


Add a comment »

I'm all for expanded and improved transit. However, can better service alone really make an improvement in transit use percentages? I think it has to be a two pronged approach of not only better service but also ways to discourage or make the true costs of driving in a personal car more transparent or to show transit as not just cheaper but better (faster).
1) Dedicated lanes - transit moves faster than personal cars
2) Parking costs - We need to make parking not seem free. Parking costs should show on paycheck of any organization that provides free or subsidized parking. Employees should have option to get cash instead of the parking cost paid
3) Gas tax and/or congestion tax - Show true cost of driving. Yes, this is the most difficult of the items and why I leave it for last.

by GP Steve on Jan 20, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport

Yeah, ok.isten, you can be for one mode of transport over another, but transit-feeds lose the argument every time they start yelling about subsidies. Driving in DC is far, FAR less subsidized than your metro trip to work. Every the average subsidy for every one if your metro rail or bus trip is just a shade under $4 bucks, or ~$8 bucks a day, every day, or $ 160 a month. Of course we haven't added in the billions it cost to build the system or the billions more it costs to maintain so if my employer decides to subsidize my parking, while I the tax payer heavily subsidizes your metro trip, I would expect you to say "thanks" or nothing at all.

Road costs on the other hand are covered by nearly 60% on average nationwide, both capital and O&M costs. Locally, that's more, especially when you factor in the 3 billion dollars in road tolls being used to build half your silver line, tolls on a road that was 100% paid to construct and maintain by tolls already.

You want to get more people to take metro. Good luck. It's been he leaving riders for 3 or 4 years, DESPITE the increase federal transit subsidy. Why? Because the system is fundamentally broken and useless. Perhaps if you started paying the full freight of your metro trip instead of expecting everyone else to subsidize you, metro could get its act together.

by Gas Tax on Jan 20, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport

With limited resources making a massive transit expansion unlikely

This entire article hangs on the acceptance of the above statement. Which is realistic, but not a way to get something done.

We must stop to accept that there is limited funding for transit while boatloads of money still go to roads. We must stop to accept that there is limited funding for transit while it is such an obvious solution for so many problems.

Accepting reality is generally not a way to change things. The Tea Party is not bothered by the utter insanity of their proposals. Yet the supposed budget deal that was just healed in Congress has many, many elements that should make Tea Partiers very happy. They did not listen to reason and got things done.

Urbanists need more of that attitude. You can not change the game without changing the rules.

by Jasper on Jan 20, 2014 3:33 pm • linkreport

The prediction that transit ridership will grow is based (via a GMU report funded by the pro-highway 2030 group) on COG model results. As I explained earlier this month, the COG model is a summary of existing land-use regulations, and is not designed to be an unbiased prediction of the future. It should not be used to make forecasts by anyone who is not politically required to use it.

by Ben Ross on Jan 20, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

Oops... prediction that transit ridership will not grow...

by Ben Ross on Jan 20, 2014 4:06 pm • linkreport

I too would like to hear a word of thanks -- for having sponsored two wars for Cheap Oil, on top of covering the costs of pollution, disease, obesity, congestion and the damage done by enabling the Gebrueder Koch to grow even more filthy rich on their investments using Stalin's dirty money.

Oh, and gee: who benefits the most when people use the Metro? Oh, yeah, that's right. Car drivers. You're welcome!

by Sydney on Jan 20, 2014 5:04 pm • linkreport

@Ben Ross - excellent point. That should be widely known.

by h st ll on Jan 20, 2014 5:07 pm • linkreport

@Ben Ross. The 2030 group is mostly a group of real estate developers, neither pro transit nor pro highway. They could be described as pro-growth and are in favor of whichever mode promotes more growth. As long as they are influential, suburban sprawl will continue.

by CFR on Jan 20, 2014 5:31 pm • linkreport

How can transit ridership increase? The Metro system is maxed out and declining in quality.Until we invest in expanded safe reliable train, bus and light rail there's no way for ridership to grow. Yet what would happen if mass transit was allowed to fail, and all those riders got in their cars to go to work? I can picture no one actually making it in to their workplaces. Instead they'd spend the day in a massive traffic jam!

by Nancy S on Jan 20, 2014 7:22 pm • linkreport

Ed Tennyson and I see several ways to increase Metro capacity AND reduce the operating subsidy. Reduced subsidies can be directed towards expansion, that reduces the subsidy even more.

The easiest way to increase capacity is to stop that 5 second delay in opening the doors. No other system we know of does this.

Headways of two minutes are certainly doable. Paris and Moscow have lines with 90 second headways. In Philadphia, Ed was able to run 90 second headways for 15 minutes at the Peak if the Peak before falling back to 105 second headways.

Another way to reduce costs is to match train length with demand. 8 car trains are not needed on the Yellow Line, even at Peak for example.

We would look into articulated cars, perhaps 8% more standing room. Longer than two car sets would require new or reworked shops for maintenance.
Some of the articulated cars may need 4 doors per side.

Infill stations, such the one planned near RFK but never built, can supply more TOD opportunities and more riders.

We are busy creating a step by step plan to expand Metro (and other urban rail) while reducing the operating subsidy. When completed, it will more than double urban rail ridership.

by Alan Drake on Jan 21, 2014 7:02 am • linkreport

Another flaw in this study is that it seems to take as a given that every single person that could afford to own a car, does.

by burgersub on Jan 21, 2014 7:46 am • linkreport

There are ways transit can grow. It is working to bring all eight car trains online which could accomodoate tens of thousands more during rush hour. TOD in areas with lower ridership will help too. Reverse commutes are nowhere near full just about anywhere outside of the core. More housing and commercial development both outside of the core but transit adjacent (near Metro stations, MARC, Purple Line, streetcars, BRT) would be start. Better bus and streetcar connections can be just as effective in some areas where there is no Metro. Improving bike and ped connections can also make it easier for people to get to the best transit option for them.

by BTA on Jan 21, 2014 8:49 am • linkreport

Yes Sydney, we are all a aware that you live a completely oil free life. None of the goods you buy in any store got there by delivery truck, none of the synthetic clothes, goods you own or wear were made from petroleum, and every war ever fought since the dawn of time has been expressly for the drivers of Kochs BMWs.

by Gas Tax on Jan 21, 2014 9:13 am • linkreport

Transit is only one element of a more efficient transportation system. Real estate development patterns and active transportation modes (walking, cycling) also play a role. Many new residential complexes have been and are being built in dense, transit-accessible areas, in D.C., Arlington and other jurisdictions. Mixed-use developments can allow employees to live closer to offices, reducing demand for expensive transportation infrastructure.

Although bike commuting will remain less popular than driving, the percentage of bike commuters has increased rapidly over the past decade, as new infrastructure was built.

The future streetcar systems in D.C. and (maybe) Arlington can help increase transit use, more quickly and at less cost than building expensive new MetroRail routes.

I don't get the complaints about transit subsidies vs. car subsidies. Both are HEAVILY subsidized, despite what some appear to believe. Gas taxes do not pay for the total costs of very expensive highway and bridge networks. Not even close. Every transportation system receives massive subsidies, including single-occupant car driving. General taxes (income, sales) help cover much of the costs for every mode of transportation. The percentage of road/bridge costs that are paid for through gas taxes is decreasing, at the federal and state levels.

by Citizen on Jan 21, 2014 12:24 pm • linkreport

The transit subsidy complaint is always rich. You know what that also subsidises? Less people on the beltway and major transportation corridors in the core meaning less congestion. I mean if you're a fan of congestion by all means get rid of the subsidies, but I don't think you will like the result.

by BTA on Jan 21, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

Those discussing Metro who is not reading the unsuckmetro twitter feed regularly needs to do it. Very often WMATA does not tell anybody about single tracking, early closings, unloadings, dangerously full stations, etc. that riders face. Making riding plans impossible by not keeping people informed in real time is because the leadership of WMATA is dreadful.
We know that repairs get needed, etc. But people need to know when their trains will arrive, whether they'll be going all the way to where they are said they'll go (as in not let you off partway with no warning), and how long it'll take to reach their destinations. They should know how long is the wait going to likely be between stations during single tracking. It's easier to deal with a long train ride that's moving than waiting that time stopped, stuck in the dark in a tunnel. I've seen how other countries you even watch online and by phone to see when trains arrive, all they did was publicize the GPS locations on all the trains and set it to a simple program so they can be visually followed.
OT, but I think the recently revealed fact that Montgomery's Ike Leggett is proud of costing taxpayers 670% more on transit than his predecessors needs to get looked at - I'm not sure there's near that percentage done in improvements justifying such expense. There's not longer, better hours from Metro as a result, there's still not enough Q buses (they still don't come every 15 minutes or less on each completely busy route) the SSTC hasn't been made into a park or something like it deserves, etc.

All this cost came during a recession. During a time when other public programs were slashed and people laid off from their jobs. He's coaxing out another billion from the State he hopes, but it needs better control in it's spending.
I think it's easy to plan more pork projects like the BRT for billion more than the entire MontCo budget, but it's got to be a win-win for everybody - drivers, bus riders, neighborhoods, bike riders, pedestrians - or it simply does not justify being made.

by asffa on Jan 21, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport

why is the conclusion that commercial development at outlying metro stations is a good thing when the analysis shows that people who work in inner jurisdictions disproportionately use transit already? Shouldn't we be continuing to encourage employment near central transit stations while encouraging mixed-use centers (of which we already have quite a number of pretty good ones) near outlying metro rail stations?). Or better yet, discouraging suburban job development that is not near transit.

And I have to second @ben ross on debunking the "transit share won't grow" meme (but OMG! still so many more transit trips!). The places where the region is growing are the places where there are more transit riders as a percentage of all commuters, so unless we continue to let jobs sprawl to inaccessible or end of the line metro stations, there will be a stronger and stronger market for transit. Might not get picked up in the COG model, which has an artificial transit trip cap because of metro rail capacity. So even the COG model undersells transit by a few points.

by SZ on Jan 21, 2014 11:00 pm • linkreport

@ SZ

Some jobs are going to have to be at places that are not near Metro period. Ones that come to mind are retail establishments of all types. As having worked at retail establishments and working do decide where to place them retail establishments go where there are other retailers, large amounts of people, large amounts of money, shopping areas and malls.

I bet that from the way people converse on here about jobs no on here works either a blue collar job or anything in cleaning, retail, warehouse, stock, or anything that does not have set hours.

You may be able to get office jobs near Metro but that leaves out people that work as Janitors/Cleaning(early morning/late night shifts), Retail associates(shifts can be anywhere from 4am-2am nextday), everybody working in hospitals (non 9-5 shifts), Maintenance staff for all types of buildings from retail to residential etc. All together these sectors make up more of the jobs in this country than the office jobs which people on here seem to only think about.

The best thing we could do for the region is having 24 hr transit in DC, Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince George's, Arlington, and Montgomery counties on selected bus routes and maybe Metrorail running every 30-60 mins between 12am & 5am.

by kk on Jan 22, 2014 2:54 pm • linkreport


The jobs even for the types of workers you mention can have good transit. I think transit can work for those types of workers because of density. Yes, we're likely not going to have frequent (or any?) 2am bus service to a random office building or strip mall. However, hospitals/malls/airports which have the workers you mentioned, have a sufficient density of workers where it makes sense to provide non-rush hour transit. Development should occur in pods of density. These pods do not need to be near a metro station. Montgomery Mall comes to mind where some of the J buses go from Bethesda Metro. Montgomery Mall has lots of retail and offices (slightly spread out but walkable). A quick look at the schedule shows service every 20 minutes or better until 11:53pm with 30 minute service until almost 1am. Service starts up again at 5:33am. So my point is you can offer good transit to off hours efficiently to other locations than by Metro stations.

by GP Steve on Jan 22, 2014 4:21 pm • linkreport


According to the EIA, of all the oil imported into the US, a full one third is refined into diesel. Since there are practically no diesel cars in the US, we can logically conclude that any diesel fuel consumed in the US that isn't used for trains and buses is used to truck your goods and services around the nation. Did you really think your local Apple Store, GAP, or Whole Foods was stocked by bicycle or Metro?

Another 20% is refined into plastics, but I am sure you don't use any plastics in your goods, services, clothes etc., so ignore that if you choose.

The evil passenger car consumes a whopping 38% of the oil the US uses, so let's not even try to pretend that every war of choice the US has engaged in recently has been soley for the benefit of selfish people who demand "cheap oil" to run their "gas-guzzling SUV's" because that just isn't so.

by ceefer66 on Jan 22, 2014 8:00 pm • linkreport

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