Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Those with few options besides public transit need extra consideration.
Last March, on the day WMATA shut down Metrorail at an afternoon’s notice, Washington, D.C., workers scrambled for a substitute means to commute. Some car owners opted to drive, cramming the Beltway and city streets. Others opted for bikeshare, gratis for the day. Still more walked or took Ubers, cabs, and buses (at least three Circulator buses reportedly broke down), and arrived to work at some loose approximation of their usual start time. And many stayed home, enjoying the option to telecommute.
But not everyone had the luxury of alternatives. Among the 11 percent of Metrorail customers who earn less than $30,000 per year, many work low-wage, hourly shifts that don’t offer the option to telework. These riders can’t necessarily afford the convenience of a cab, an Uber, or even a smartphone to hail one. These riders still need to be able to get to their jobs, and for 29 hours in March, it was a lot harder for some.
Turns out, that day was a testing period for WMATA. Earlier this month, the beleaguered transit system announced plans for a year’s worth of long-deferred track maintenance work, beginning June 3. The “SafeTrack” schedule will require 15 multi-day service outages on certain line segments, widespread single-tracking, a moratorium on extended hours, and significant cuts to weekend and weeknight service. “Metrorail riders will be encouraged to consider using alternate travel options while safety surge work is in effect on their line,” WMATA said in a statement.
Whether or not they use transit, all D.C. residents will feel the hurt of service cuts (avowed drivers will have to deal with heavier traffic, too). But once again, low-income riders will be especially burdened. According to WMATA’s own data, riders who earn less than $30,000 per year are more likely to ride at off-peak times than they are during rush-hour peaks. So closures on nights and weekends will have the biggest impact on them.
Extended outages along certain lines are also going to put an extra cost burden on poor riders searching for alternatives. Most low-income residents of the D.C. metro live toward the eastern part of the District, and in adjacent Prince George’s County, Maryland. One prolonged outage along the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines—between the Eastern Market and Benning/Minnesota stations, and currently planned to take place from August 20 through September 6—will likely hit low-income commuters particularly hard. (WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said Wednesday that a revision to this schedule would be ready soon.)
“This is going to have a major negative impact on these workers,” Jaime Contreras, a local building-service workers’ union, told the Washington Post earlier this month.
What can WMATA do to help mitigate these harms? “Free or reduced-cost shuttle buses to bridge service gaps during outages could help relieve some of the burden poor riders will face,” Jesus Barajas, a scholar of transit equity at UC Berkeley, tells CityLab via email.
Just as important will be for WMATA to make far more concerted efforts than in the past to communicate outages ahead of time. Extra care should be taken to let non-English-speakers know where and when station closures will be occurring, and what options are available. (Metro has stated that it plans to dedicate 40 to 50 buses for alternate service at affected stations, and that it will alert nearby residents with multiple, bilingual lines of communication.)
“My hope is that Metro will do an extra effort to reach out, and let people know what to expect early so they don’t find out about the service changes on the day of,” Contreras told the Post. “As long as they do this, people should be able to plan ahead and how to get in and from work.”
There are some silver linings here. Chief among them is the fact that low-income earners represent a much higher share of bus ridership than they do rail ridership; those earning less than $30,000 represent roughly half of WMATA’s bus ridership, compared to 11 percent of rail ridership. Cuts to rail service won’t have nearly as great an impact on low-income transit riders as cuts to bus service would.
Additionally, the planned service rollbacks and outages mainly affect sections of the Red, Blue, and Yellow lines, which pass through relatively high-median-income neighborhoods. That will still leave some poor riders in these areas stranded, but as long as WMATA creates sufficient bus alternatives and communication efforts in these areas, the majority won’t need to be too badly hit.
It’s also worth putting all of this in perspective: If WMATA didn’t take the time to make critical repairs to its neglected rail system, what would the impact look like then? Over the long term, foregoing maintenance would mean more failing service, which would mean less ridership from those who have alternative means, which would yield less revenue for WMATA, which would create more financial difficulty. All of this would lead to less service and lower quality, hurting low-income riders who rely on transit most. “Safety and security is the most fundamental aspect of the hierarchy of needs in public transportation,” says Hiroyuki Iseki, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in transit equity and travel behavior.
Still, as it undertakes an ambitious and long-awaited maintenance plan, WMATA has an obligation to serve its hardest-hit riders. That should serve as an obvious, yet oft-overlooked reminder to any transit agency or department of transportation assessing infrastructure projects certain to affect service: Customers with few options besides public transit need extra consideration.