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Take a closer look at Saturday's Metro ridership numbers

Metro has gotten quite a bit of press this week for the overcrowded conditions faced by people trying to get to the Stewart/Colbert Rally on Saturday.

Greater Greater Washington has asked Metro for more information about service on Saturday, and while not all of our questions have yet been answered, they have been able to get some information to us. We haven't had a chance to analyze everything, but we can see some interesting ridership patterns from Saturday.

Systemwide Metro entries and exits by hour. Graphic by author, data courtesy WMATA.

Saturday's ridership patterns appear to be basically what one would expect, although with some notable attributes in places. Metro's ridership on the day of the rally was the highest for any Saturday in the system's history, with over 825,000 trips.

The above graphic shows the number of entries (blue) and exits (dark red) by hour throughout the Metro system.

There's nothing shocking here. Both entry and exit numbers exhibit a double peak, as we would expect. Interestingly enough, the earlier (pre-rally) peaks are higher than the later (post-rally) peaks. This is probably due to a few different factors.

I would hypothesize that some people took their time going home, perhaps stopping at a restaurant, bar, or museum. Others may have been discouraged from taking the Metro home based on their morning experiences.

Many riders started their trips in the suburbs, so let's look there first. In the graphic above, we can see entries and exits at Shady Grove throughout the day. The hour beginning at 11 o'clock was the peak entry period, with close to 3,000 entries in that hour (50 persons/min, average). A double peak in the 6p hour and 8p hour for exits would indicate that there were two surges of riders coming home.

I find it puzzling as to why the hour from 7:00-7:59p has a dip, instead of a number of exits similar to the adjacent hours.

Columbia Heights also shows an interesting time distribution. Like Shady Grove, the 11 o'clock hour is the peak entry period. The peak is not as defined, however.

Entries don't really drop off until after 2p. Even more interesting is the absence of an exit peak. People seem to have trickled back to Columbia Heights (or avoided Metro altogether). Perhaps urbanites are more likely to do other things in the city than hop on the first train home.

Note: since Columbia Heights is not an end-of-line station, we don't know the directionality of those boarding. Most AM passengers were probably headed to the Rally, however.

Activity at this Smithsonian is precisely what one would expect, since the station was one of the closest to the site of the Rally.

Prior to the Rally, the station experienced a growing increase in exits which peaked between 11:00 and 11:59p. There was a slight drop-off for the period from 12:00 and 12:59, perhaps because there were throughput issues on the Metro or perhaps because the Rally was starting. But then there was a huge spike in exits between 1:00 and 1:59.

As we expect, from 4:00-6:59p, there is a large number of entries. This includes a peak at 4p and a smaller peak at 6p.

Smithsonian had more exits than any other station in the system for the whole day on Saturday with 46,738 exits.

Gallery Place exhibits what we expect for a downtown station not too far from the site of the rally. A peak in exits similar to those at Smithsonian can be seen, though the peak is smaller. Entries peaked earlier than those at Smithsonian. And except for a dip from 6-6:59 (dinner?), entries remained high, though with a dropping trend, throughout the evening.

This station had more entries than any other station in the system for the whole day on Saturday with 50,969 entries.

The above graph shows entries and exits at all Red Line stations between noon and 12:59p. The stations are arranged linearly from the A [Shady Grove] Route (left) to the B [Glenmont] Route (right).

This chart does not represent the fullness of a train operating from left to right. It only shows entries and exits in a linear format, like the Red Line. It is incapable of demonstrating where people exited the Red Line to transfer to other lines. So the Metro Center number only shows entries and exits of the faregates, not transfers. Those number do show people who entered or exited Metro Center, Gallery Place, and Fort Totten and used lines other than the Red Line.

These ridership numbers aren't earth shattering in their patterns, even if they are in sheer volume. But they do reveal some interesting dips and spikes. What do you find most interesting about these graphs?

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Re: Columbia Heights

I was there in the AM, and bailed on the station. They shut the faregates because the platfrom was too crowded. Our group tried buses, but those were infrequent and too crowded to let passengers on. Eventually, we walked and found a cab.

The absence of an exit peak is probably from people like me who then avoided Metro like the plague for the rest of the day. What a mess.

by Alex B. on Nov 5, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

@Alex B : Agreed. Like many others, I tried boarding, but trains and the platform were too busy so I hopped on a bus. Many people decided to stay downtown for a few hours to let Metro recuperate.

by John on Nov 5, 2010 10:55 am • linkreport

The station manager let me out of NY Ave without tapping after 5 packed trains went by.

Later that night, one of the managers at Gallery Place let me back in without tapping, without much explanation "Oh. You too? Just hop over"

As such, I now have a 9-hour-long trip logged on my SmarTrip account.

by andrew on Nov 5, 2010 11:04 am • linkreport

My 2 out of town guests road metro downtown in the morning exiting at Metro Center but were unable to board there at 4:30pm (because of crowding) and ultimately did not ride metro back to destination.

@Matt J.- small thing; just curious as to the difference in interpretation. I interpreted the time of the troughs/peaks differently than you did based on what I could see in the figures. E.g. to me it looks like the Shady Grove exit trough (within the double peak) is hit at 7 and starts to trend up reaching 2nd peak at 8. Thus I would have said the trend down is 6-7 instead of 7-8.

Very interesting data. Thank you for presenting it.

by Tina on Nov 5, 2010 11:31 am • linkreport


There's only one number for each hourly period. So fewer people exited between 7 and 8 than between 6 and 7 or 8 and 9.

by MLD on Nov 5, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

@Tina, @MLD:
MLD, you are correct. There is only one data point per hour. A bar graph probably would have been a better choice, but it didn't look as nice.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 5, 2010 11:56 am • linkreport

Interesting, thanks for posting. Would like to see Rosslyn matched up with Arlington hour-by-hour in the morning. Many of us waiting on Largo/New Carollton trains gave up and instead traveled to Arlington and walked across the bridge.

by OX4 on Nov 5, 2010 12:21 pm • linkreport

Do the totals for entrances to the system match the totals for the exits? There were stories about people getting let on without paying due to the overcrowding. Although I guess if you didn't tap your card when you entered, you wouldn't tap it to exit either...

by Teyo on Nov 5, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

The Smithsonian Independence avenue exit was closed in the middle of the afternoon. Riders were redirected to the mall entrance.

by Tour Guide on Nov 5, 2010 1:31 pm • linkreport

Strikes me that the exit dip at Shady Grove could simply be explained by the number of trains arriving in each one-hour window. On weekends, on the Red Line, trains are spaced so far apart that a train arriving just before 7 pm, or just after 8 pm, could significantly reduce the number of people arriving in the intervening hour.

by Crispin on Nov 5, 2010 1:37 pm • linkreport

What would be really interesting would be to compare system-wide entries and exits from this past Saturday to an average Saturday.

by Michael on Nov 5, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

Re Columbia Heights: my friends and I entered the station around 11:00 and bailed quickly cause the trains were packed to the gills. We walked down to the rally.

We rode the 42 bus back, picking it up at the MLK library. The bust was empty when we got on, and so we got a seat. It quickly filled up. We exited on Columbia Road just below Mount Pleasant.

I drove down from my home in PA to crash at my former roommate's place in Mt. Pleasant, parking at Greenbelt, so I caught the green line outbound at Columbia Heights at about 5:30. It was totally jammed, the operator threatened to kick everyone off several times because the doors wouldn't close. When we finally got to Greenbelt, the gates were open and the metro guy was saying something more polite than, but to the effect of, "The gates are open, get the hell out of our metro system - damned tourists." I applaud that notion, cause as a former DC resident I was kinda thinking the same thing myself. What I realized was that I didn't touch my Smartrip to exit. I wonder if I'll get charged to reenter the system. Probably. Oh well.

by Chris from PA on Nov 5, 2010 4:29 pm • linkreport

Thanks for presenting this. One thing that's been largely ignored is that not only was this record-breaking ridership for a Saturday, but this was high ridership for ANY day. The last time Metro had as many as 825,000 trips was back in June! Given the woefully insufficient service, it's amazing that so many people actually were able to get on the system (or at least through the faregates).

by Adam F on Nov 5, 2010 4:58 pm • linkreport

Interesting stuff. Thanks for putting this together.

Out of curiosity, does Metro keep, and share, more detailed entry/exit information for SmarTrip users? I'm not talking about specific SmarTrip cards, but entries/exists in the aggregate.

by wr on Nov 5, 2010 7:03 pm • linkreport

I'm sure that info could be dug up from a database somewhere.



by Chris from PA on Nov 5, 2010 11:44 pm • linkreport

Fascinating. I was in town for the event and boarded at Columbia Heights at around 11:15. I figured that with the rally schedule I'd seen on Friday, showing some warm up comedians and music, that people wouldn't be there promptly at the start. Also, while I couldn't imagine their permit for 60,000 would actually reflect the numbers (as I've never traveled to a rally before, and had several other friends who did--any my friends tend to be politically active people who can afford the occasional plane ticket), I imagined they'd probably top off at a respectable 100-125,000. Clearly I was in for a surprise.

It would seem to me that Metro may have had also been taken by surprise in not cancelling work that required single track operation and such. But considering what the permit is for, I can hardly blame them (except maybe that by 9 a.m. they should have already seen crowding and cancelled work, knowing it'd get worse--but I can only speculate, perhaps they were too far into the work to just end it, particularly if they were doing track replacement).

So at Columbia Heights platform had hundreds of people waiting on it and probably a hundred people in line trying to buy fares (I was smart enough to make sure I had money on my ticket the day before), and, despite crush-loaded trains pulling in, most did seem to manage to jam their way into the cars at that time. But I knew it was going to get worse before it got better, so I back rode. First to Fort Totten, only to find it was futile there, too (also, considering how bad Green was by Fort Totten, I don't get why they didn't extend Yellow Line service there, at least--that'd have been easy). So I transferred to Red to try that--no avail. So I started back riding on Red, nervously, knowing I was making it even harder to get in if I couldn't board a train. By Silver Spring, trains were still crush-loaded and I could see lines extending at least a block, three deep, on both sidewalks, just to enter the station. I was afraid I'd reach the terminal and it'd be such a madhouse I'd miss the whole event.

Turns out as we got to the end of the line, the train I was on was a light standing load, and maybe four people got off--everyone stayed on, just as I was planning to do. It was nearly full by the time we left, but I nabbed a seat and held onto it.

But in the end, it only took me an hour and fifteen minutes to manage my way from Columbia Heights to Chinatown-Gallery Pl--normally an eight minute Metro ride or 40 minute walk.

by Tony on Nov 7, 2010 5:43 pm • linkreport

More people would have ridden if WMATA didnt have their heads up their backsides. I was staying with a friend near White Flint and the train was full at 9:30 AM already and at every station people could not squeeze on. I got off at Adams Morgan and hung out with my friends on U st. We didn't even try to get on at the U St side because we heard people say the wait was half an hour or more. Why were they not running more trains?!? Do they hate revenue that much?

by AB on Nov 7, 2010 7:46 pm • linkreport

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