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Posts about Ridership


Metro ridership is dropping. Here's what some experts think is the cause.

Ridership on both Metrorail and Metrobus dropped off in a big way over the past year. Possible reasons include cheaper gas and a struggling economy, but those probably aren't substitutes for two staples: safety and reliability issues.

Photo by Kevin Harber on Flickr.

According to WAMU's Martin Di Caro, overall Metro ridership (both rail and bus) fell by to 321 million trips, or about six percent, during the 2015 fiscal year (WMATA's fiscal year runs from July-June). Rail ridership declined even more steeply than the system as a whole, falling seven percent.

All images from WMATA unless otherwise noted.

With bus ridership dropping too, it's apparent that commuters displaced by SafeTrack did not turn to Metrobus as an alternative. These declines compound other factors that have affected ridership, says DiCaro:

Demographic changes, the rise of telework, the proliferation of transport alternatives such as Uber or Capital Bikeshare, the economic downturn and reductions in federal spending, constant weekend track work over the past five years—all have combined with consistently poor rush hour service to drain Metrorail ridership.
Experts disagree about the main factors affecting transit ridership

Last week, a George Mason professor who focuses on policy and transit, a top official at the American Public Transportation Association, and planners from within Metro briefed Metro's board of directors, which is preparing for budget discussions, on the reasons for the decline.

Their explanations for the drop varied.

George Mason Professor of Public Policy and Regional Transit Stephen Fuller presented a handful of factors affecting Metro's ridership. "Levels and quality of service" topped his list:

APTA Vice President of Policy Art Guzzetti listed lower gas prices and fare prices as the top two factors potentially affecting ridership:

Metro's Managing Director of Planning Shyam Kannan laid out the agency's analysis of ridership. Among the largest factors in Metro's own theories about declining ridership are the economy and the rise of Uber and bicycling as alternate commuting methods. Those, however, are outside of WMATA's control.

What WMATA can control are service levels and reliability. That is what WMATA believes will bring back ridership.

Quicker, more frequent, and more reliable service would encourage people to ride more often:

Correction: The original version of this post overlooked a few of Metro's slides. While Kannan did discuss a number of factors that explain lower ridership, his presentation centered on safety and reliability as the top drivers of ridership. The original also said that Metro ridership has dropped by 321 million trips, when in fact it has dropped to 321 million trips.


The West Falls Church station got far less use after the Silver Line opened

When the Silver Line opened in July of 2014, the West Falls Church Metro station took a huge ridership hit. But overall, the Silver Line meant more people riding Metro.

Graph by the author. Click for a larger version.

The chart above is based on the ridership data released by Metro in March. The stations noted here are West Falls Church and the five new Silver Line stations, with data coming from AM peak entries during typical weekdays.

In the span of two months, from a peak in June 2014 to a low in August 2014, West Falls Church station saw its average ridership drop by almost 70% with the opening of the Silver Line! While this appears to be bad news for West Falls Church and Metro, that isn't the case if you look at all six stations.

It looks like when the Silver Line opened, West Falls Church riders immediately switched to stations closer to their homes. That, or rather than driving to West Falls Church, they started driving to Wiehle, the only new station with parking (it could be a combination of both, of course).

Changes to bus routes in the corridor probably had a lot to do with the drop in entries at West Falls. When the Silver Line opened, 62 bus routes got modifications. 11 were eliminated altogether, and major feeder routes operated by Fairfax Connector, Loundon County, and Washington Flyer moved their terminus from West Falls to Wiehle Avenue.

Overall, the Silver Line and the bus service changes that accompanied it attracted new riders to Metro. This is evidenced in the the uptick in the grand total entries among these six stations. It's likely that a lot of new riders are commuters from Fairfax and Loudoun County, where Metro was previously unaccessible.

A goal of public transit is to offer people better access to transportation. The opening of the Silver Line made travel for existing Metro customers easier by putting stations closer to their homes, and also attracted new riders by offering an alternative to driving and carpooling.


On most days, this many people use your Metro station

Last month, WMATA's PlanItMetro blog released another batch of detailed ridership data. We used it to visualize how many people enter each Metro station over the course of a normal weekday.

Entrances at Red Line stations throughout the day. All graphics by the authors.

For each Metro line, we made an animated gif that cycles through fifteen minute intervals from 4:30am to midnight. Each dot on the line represents the average number of riders who entered that station during that time interval on weekdays in October 2015.

Blue Line.

Orange Line.

Since a lot of people use Metro to commute, many riders enter suburban stations in Virginia and Maryland in the morning. This pattern reverses during the evening rush hour when most riders board trains at downtown stations.

Yellow Line.

Green Line.

Not all stations follow this trend, though. For example, Ballston has strong ridership during both rush hours since the neighborhood is home to offices and residential buildings alike.

Silver Line.

What do you notice in these graphs?


Changes in Metro ridership, in five charts

Between 2011 and 2015, the average number of riders that entered a Metro station dropped from 8,500 per station to 7,400. During the same time, the only Metro station to see a big jump in ridership was NoMa-Gallaudet. I graphed these numbers, and more, after Metro recently released five years' worth of data.

Ridership at Union Station in 2011 vs 2015. All graphics by the author.

Comparing ridership from 2011 to 2015, I see five main ways to categorize changes at individual stations:

  1. No change, or only a subtle change in ridership
  2. Pronounced decline in ridership
  3. Pronounced increase in ridership
  4. Silver Line-related ridership changes
  5. Seasonal or weather-related ridership changes
In order to help illustrate these patterns, I graphed the data and pulled out some of the most interesting stations. For all plots below, monthly ridership in 2011 is shown as red squares, and ridership for 2015 as blue crosses.

1. No change, or only a subtle change in ridership

Average weekday ridership at Branch Avenue, Glenmont, and Largo Town Center stations in 2011 vs 2015.

Many of the stations in the system appeared to show either no decrease in ridership, or only a slight one. Around 55-60 stations fit into this category, or around 60 percent of the Metrorail system.

2. Pronounced decline in ridership

Average weekday ridership at Metro Center, L'Enfant Plaza, and Gallery Place-Chinatown stations in 2011 vs 2015.

The combined effect of all the subtle declines near the edges gets sharper when you look at bigger drop offs at the system's core stations, including Metro Center, L'Enfant Plaza, and Gallery Place. In total, around 20 of the 91 total Metro stations fit into this category.

Average weekday ridership at Pentagon, Pentagon City, and Crystal City stations in 2011 vs 2015.

All stations in south Arlington saw declines in ridership. What is it about that area that has changed in the last four years? Perhaps this is an area that WMATA should focus efforts to boost ridership? Or perhaps success of the Metroway bus service between Alexandria and Arlington has shifted passengers away from the rail system?

3. Pronounced increase in ridership

Average weekday ridership at NoMa - Gallaudet University station in 2011 vs 2015.

The only station to see substantial increases in ridership over this time period was NoMa. The station saw ridership increase from an average of 7,400 riders per weekday to over 9,000/weekday over the period of this data, an increase of over 20 percent. This is not surprising given the amount of development that has occurred in this area around the station.

In this context, a "substantial increase" in ridership is based on an increase of 1,000 average weekday riders over the course of the entire year of data. This helps show that the ridership change isn't temporary or a short seasonal change, but one that will affect the station long-term.

4. Silver Line related ridership changes

Average weekday ridership at West Falls Church, Vienna, and Wiehle-Reston East stations in 2011 vs 2015.

The opening of the Silver Line, as you might guess, greatly impacted the end of the Orange Line stations. You can see Wiehle picking up some of those declines.

Average weekday ridership at West Falls Church declined by almost 75 percent when the Silver Line opened. This shift is due in part to people using the five new stations that opened, as well as the bus route changes that shifted many away from departing/arriving West Falls Church. The five new Silver Line stations carried an average weekday ridership of just under 3,000 people across all of 2015.

5. Seasonal or temporal related ridership changes

Average weekday ridership at Navy Yard-Ballpark, Smithsonian, and Arlington Cemetery stations in 2011 vs 2015.

You can always tell when it's baseball season by looking at ridership at Navy Yard-Ballpark station. 2015 was a better season for the Nats than 2011, which might be why the former had higher ridership.

Smithsonian station always shows when it's cherry blossom time (noted by the sharp increase in average ridership in April), tourist season (increased ridership during the summer months), and the 4th of July (sharp increase in average ridership for the month of July). Arlington Cemetery similarly shows average ridership increases over the summer when the weather is nice, and decreases to under 400 average riders per weekday during the cold season (also when the station closes earlier), although to a lesser extent.

The stations selected are only representatives from across the whole system. You can find plots showing the entire system and other more granular data here. What else have you found in the data that's interesting?


All 91 Metro stations, ranked by ridership

WMATA's PlanItMetro blog has released a trove of data on Metro station use. Here's one snippet: All 91 stations, ranked by the average number of riders who entered the faregates each weekday in February, 2016.

Farragut West, the 5th busiest station. Photo by the author.

  1. Union Station 29,371
  2. Gallery Place 25,537
  3. Farragut North 24,597
  4. Metro Center 24,330
  5. Farragut West 20,917
  6. Foggy Bottom 20,121
  7. L'Enfant Plaza 19,343
  8. Dupont Circle 18,653
  9. Pentagon 14,584
  10. McPherson Square 14,340

What jumps out to you, both from this list and the rest of WMATA's data? Here's the rest of the list:

  1. Rosslyn 13,666
  2. Pentagon City 12,558
  3. Silver Spring 12,269
  4. Columbia Heights 11,840
  5. Shady Grove 11,732
  6. Crystal City 11,480
  7. Ballston 10,759
  8. Vienna 10,005
  9. Bethesda 9,883
  10. NoMa 9,038
  11. Judiciary Square 8,722
  12. Friendship Heights 8,503
  13. Archives 7,829
  14. Fort Totten 7,543
  15. Federal Triangle 7,381
  16. Wiehle 7,306
  17. King Street 7,238
  18. New Carrollton 7,209
  19. Smithsonian 7,149
  20. Court House 7,074
  21. Huntington 7,002
  22. Capitol South 6,957
  23. Navy Yard 6,834
  24. Franconia-Springfield 6,821
  25. Anacostia 6,799
  26. U Street-Cardozo 6,671
  27. Tenleytown 6,587
  28. Brookland 6,324
  29. Van Ness 6,158
  30. Georgia Avenue-Petworth 6,151
  31. Glenmont 5,881
  32. Woodley Park 5,861
  33. Greenbelt 5,738
  34. Rhode Island Avenue 5,727
  35. Federal Center SW 5,697
  36. Reagan National Airport 5,631
  37. Medical Center 5,591
  38. Eastern Market 5,500
  39. Branch Avenue 5,449
  40. Takoma 5,329
  41. Grosvenor 5,206
  42. Shaw 4,989
  43. Suitland 4,918
  44. Southern Avenue 4,751
  45. Braddock Road 4,543
  46. Largo Town Center 4,435
  47. Clarendon 4,423
  48. Prince George's Plaza 4,385
  49. Rockville 4,245
  50. Mt. Vernon Square 4,243
  51. Twinbrook 4,163
  52. Dunn Loring 4,081
  53. College Park 4,068
  54. Waterfront 4,008
  55. Cleveland Park 3,961
  56. East Falls Church 3,913
  57. Virginia Square 3,898
  58. Wheaton 3,864
  59. White Flint 3,641
  60. Potomac Avenue 3,635
  61. West Hyattsville 3,402
  62. Addison Road 2,971
  63. Van Dorn Street 2,970
  64. Tysons Corner 2,857
  65. Benning Road 2,823
  66. West Falls Church 2,715
  67. Naylor Road 2,471
  68. Congress Heights 2,431
  69. Stadium-Armory 2,430
  70. Minnesota Avenue 2,387
  71. Forest Glen 2,230
  72. Capitol Heights 1,893
  73. Morgan Blvd. 1,849
  74. Landover 1,667
  75. McLean 1,562
  76. Eisenhower Avenue 1,486
  77. Deanwood 1,347
  78. Cheverly 1,153
  79. Greensboro 1,079
  80. Spring Hill 1,042
  81. Arlington Cemetery 363
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


National links: No more grocery stores

Walmart has turned many towns into high-dry food deserts, Nashville is considering its transit options, and Uber had to get creative to get insurance. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Alison & Orlando Masis on Flickr.

Walmart's small town shuffle: Walmart is closing shop in a number of small towns despite only recently arriving and putting other grocery stores out of business. Residents say the effect is devastating. (Bloomberg)

Music City moving: Nashville's transit authority is working to put forward a plan for developing transit. The most robust possibility would build new light rail, streetcars, and bus lines, and would cost $5.4 billion. The smallest plan, at $800 million, would focus on buses and the existing commuter rail line. (Nashville Tennessean)

Uber insurance: Uber as a ride hailing service might not exist if not for one of its employees convincing insurance agents to cover drivers. There's a lot of grey area in how to insure someone who is waiting for the app to connect them with a customer. (Buzz Feed News)

Build up for cars: As soon as cars came on the scene in cities, residents and businesses needed places to put them. In dense places, people put cars on elevators and stored vertically. These pictures show how that technology evolved from the 1920s to 1970s. (Mashable)

To live and ride in LA: Transit ridership has gone down in Los Angeles by 10% from the high reached in 2006. Officials are wondering how to attract more high-income riders, and whether they should stick with current plans to build more bike and bus-only lanes. (Los Angeles Times)

Cities as testing grounds: Gridlock at the US Capitol and in state houses nationwide has liberal leaders testing new laws and ideas at the municipal level. The hope is that cities will prove certain laws work, which will lead to change at state and federal level. (New York Times)

Quote of the Week: "The government is one group that doesn't get to choose its customers. We want to make it work for everyone." Jennifer Pahlka, who started Code for America to help cities work better with their citizens. (San Francisco Chronicle)


A lot more people will ride Metro (and not drive) if the FBI makes a smart choice on where to move

Our region has been discussing where the FBI will move for years. A new analysis shows the choice is between a good option (Greenbelt), a mostly-good option (Springfield), and a pretty terrible option (Landover). Let's hope the federal government makes the right call.

Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

The FBI wants to leave its aging headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, and many in the District would not be sad to see it go. The FBI, like other security-related agencies, wants a high-security fortress with impenetrable walls and what amounts to a moat. That's not ideal in downtown DC, where shops, restaurants, condominiums, and top-tier office space are all in high demand. The block-size dead zone that is the Hoover Building in its current state is bad enough.

The current FBI site does have it's upsides: it's near every single Metro line and countless buses, and since it's in the center of the region it's not very far from anyone. A new site near the Beltway, like the three finalists, all will force longer commutes on at least some people, and push more people to drive, increasing traffic.

How much traffic, however, depends very much on how close the site is to Metro. Build a new headquarters next to a Metro station and near bus lines, and many people will use it; force people to take a shuttle bus, and many fewer will bother.

The more people ride Metro, the better for all of us

Even residents who have no ties to the FBI should care deeply about this important decision. Metro is struggling from low ridership that is squeezing its budget, thanks to maintenance woes, cuts in federal transit benefits, management failures, safety fears, and much more. Our region needs a healthy Metro system to move the hordes of commuters that traverse the region every day.

One of the best ways to strengthen Metro is to use "reverse commute" capacity. Trains are the same size and number going both in and out of downtown, of course; if they're full going in but empty going out, that's a lot of wasted capacity. Large employment centers at outer stations, like at Medical Center, Suitland, and now with the Silver Line, Tysons Corner, drive that reverse traffic. Plus, research has shown that people feel much more willing to use the train if the office is very close to a transit station; a short to medium drive, walk, or bike ride is more palatable from home to the train than on the other end.

No shuttle at Greenbelt; a long shuttle at Landover

According to the recently-released Environmental Impact Statement, an FBI headquarters at Greenbelt could mean up to 47% of workers, or 5,170 people a day, could ride Metro, and they would mostly be using the extra space on reverse peak direction Green Line trains. There would only be 3,600 parking spaces, meaning at most only 3,600 more cars on the Beltway and other roads.

A site in Springfield, Virginia, is almost as good; the station is 0.3 miles from the potential site, and the General Services Administration estimates there would need to be a shuttle, though many people would not need it; this is similar to the distances at Suitland, where there is a bus but many people walk. The EIS predicts 4,070 riders, or 37% of workers, take Metro, and also 3,600 spaces.

Landover, meanwhile, is far, far worse. That site is 1.9 miles from Metro, much too far for walking and forcing everyone to ride a shuttle (which would also take longer, naturally). The EIS estimates only 19% of people ride Metro and a need for 7,300 parking spaces, or about double the added traffic.

These Metro mode share estimates do seem too high—all of them, but definitely Landover. According to public ridership data from WMATA, the Suitland and New Carrollton office parks are getting about 10% of workers riding Metro. It strains credulity that 19% of FBI workers would ride a shuttle to a site 2 miles from the station when 10% don't do the same for a much shorter half mile trip.

Suitland. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Will everyone who can't park take Metro?

Why the discrepancy? The methodology assumes strict limits on parking based on the National Capital Planning Commission's policies. NCPC limits parking to one space per three employees at federal facilities outside DC but within 2,000 feet of a Metro station, and one space per 1.5 employees farther from Metro. That's a very progressive policy that pushes federal agencies to help their employees get to work in ways other than solo driving.

The EIS assumes anyone who can't park will ride Metro, except for a carpool/vanpool rate based on similar federal installations of 10-11%. But will the FBI obey? The National Institutes of Health, right at a Metro station, has been resisting NCPC's policy; the FBI surely has even greater clout if it wanted to build massive amounts of parking. And even if it didn't, it seems doubtful that the lack of parking, while a strong motivating force, would push 19% of employees onto Metro and then a long shuttle ride.

Regardless, it's clear that a choice for Greenbelt or Springfield would help the FBI have a positive impact on Metro's health and minimize the traffic effects, while Landover would do the opposite. Because there are more jobs on the west side of the region than the east, the Beltway and other roads similarly have extra capacity going east, which is one of several reasons why adding jobs to Prince George's County also will strengthen our region.

The federal government may ignore all of the impacts on other commuters and our region's transportation systems when making the decision about a site, but drivers, Metro riders, and just all taxpayers whose dollars help fund the roads and rails should hope the choice is a wise one.

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