People giving up on the Metrorail system is bad news all around: it’s bad for the current car commuters, it’s bad for the environment, and it’s definitely bad for Metro’s bottom line.
If the roads seem worse since 2012, it might not be your imagination. Two years ago Metro cut the Blue Line — and trips from Blue Line stations in Northern Virginia have fallen, with ridership at these stations now back to 2005-2006 levels.
The graph below uses WMATA data and tracks daily Metrorail boardings over the past 15 years for the 9 Northern Virginia stations serviced by the Blue Line (excluding Rosslyn) and for the Metrorail system as a whole. Remember that the declines we see on the graph are all riders at these stations — no matter what line they took (Blue or Yellow) — so riders switching to Yellow do not cause the drop. This sharp decline is all the people giving up on taking Metro at all. It is riders moving out of Alexandria and Arlington for shorter commutes, and it is riders choosing to abandon public transit by leaving the Metrorail system altogether.
As you can see in the graph, for most of the past decade blue line ridership and overall metro ridership growth followed similar tracks. Ridership at the Blue Line stations grew by a little more than 12 percent, compared to about 11 percent growth for the overall system. But then, in 2012 you can clearly see on the graph that ridership at the Blue Line stations falls dramatically. These are among the largest year-over-year declines in ridership at these stations sine Metro extended the Blue Line to King Street in 1984, and it is the first time since then that ridership at these stations has fallen two years in a row.
It is unclear what initiated the decline in 2012, since those figures were recorded in May before Rush+ began. But any declines were likely exacerbated by the introduction of Rush+, which began in July 2012. Any time you raise the cost of public transit – whether through fares, inconvenience of added transfers, or lost time from longer waits – you should expect to see falling demand and reduced ridership. The unknown is how much will it fall. With Rush+, Metro cut Blue Line Rush Hour service from trains every 6 minutes to trains every 8.5 minutes. From 2012 to 2013 after these cuts, ridership at these stations fell by 4.3 percent. This decline is about 4,000 daily boardings – or 8,000 total trips when including the return Metro trip. This was also a much greater decline than the 2.4 percent decline seen for the rest of the Metro system.
What will happen when Metro introduces MORE Blue Line cuts? We expect Metro’s additional cuts will cause more people in the Blue Line corridor to stop taking public transit. So if you think things are bad now, they could get a lot worse.
Here’s why you should be concerned:
- The lost riders on the Blue Line riders will partially offset the increase in riders that Metro expects to add to the system from the Silver Line. Losing your existing customers to gain new ones is never a good business strategy.
- Metro’s planning department says that a highway lane can only carry 2,200 cars per hour. So these cuts may cause a substantial additional strain on DC’s already crowded highways.
- If the lost riders switched from public transit to driving, it will also add thousands of tons of CO2 emissions to the air each year.
Since Metro did not require a second tunnel crossing to be built when designing Silver Line, some level of Blue Line cuts were necessary to make space for the Silver Line. But let’s not make the mistake of making drastic cuts again. We shouldn’t have to decimate one Metro line to introduce another.
This post was updated on July 26, 2014 to reflect that the 2012 data reported by WMATA was recorded in May of 2012 and was not an average across the entire year.