Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Slashing services may help the system with operational costs, but at a profound cost to the city in terms of social equity.
No discussion of D.C.’s flailing Metro system is complete without .GIFs of dumpster fires and novel imperatives like “unsuck.” But D.C.’s rail system could be worse. Metro always finds ways to remind passengers of this fact.
In a presentation on Metro’s operating budget for fiscal year 2018, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority outlined some of the system’s deep-seated budgetary challenges as well as proposals for fixing them. Fare hikes and benefits reductions are among the bitter pills that Metro may ask its anguished passengers and beleaguered employees to swallow.
One proposal stands out among the rest, however: A schedule of potential service reductions for both rail and bus lines would eliminate Metrorail service to 20 low-performing Metro stations during off-peak hours. More than half of these targeted stations are located east of the Anacostia River.
“Although fare increases are unpopular, surveys generally indicate that service cuts are even more unpopular with riders,” the WMATA budget report reads. “Proposed cuts to specific bus routes always will be met with public opposition, and proposed service reductions on rail are likely to be broadly unpopular, especially if service reliability in the peak does not improve and the reduction would lead to significantly worsened crowding.”
This proposal would all but eliminate off-peak Metrorail service to Ward 7. It would cut off-peak Metrorail service to Ward 8 by half. The effects on passengers in these parts of the city (and in Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside the District’s borders) would be enormous. Detailed Metrorail ridership data from 2010 to 2015 show that, for every station east of the river except Minnesota Avenue, mid-day ridership exceeds the p.m. rush hour.
These stations may be Metro outliers for their lower ridership numbers. But throughout the system, mid-day ridership often rivals the morning or evening rush hours. (At no station does off-peak ridership beat both.) For stations east of the river, though, mid-day ridership accounts for a larger share of overall trips. Riders who use these stations, though relatively fewer in number, would be disproportionately inconvenienced by these specific service cuts.
Metro’s proposal runs counter to transit trends elsewhere. Across the country, off-peak is the new peak. Transit agencies are seeing hikes in off-peak ridership figures, and several are working to boost service beyond key commute times to meet this demand. Not in D.C., though: Metrorail ridership is down across “all time periods, days of the week, and nearly all individual stations,” with losses “especially severe in off-peak periods,” per a WMATA memo. Were Metro a healthy transit system, passengers might demand more off-peak service—not less.
Slashing services could help the system with operating costs, but at a profound cost to the city in terms of social equity. As 11 of the stations targeted for cuts are located in Ward 7, Ward 8, and P.G. County, the proposal would disproportionately hamper D.C.’s poorest and blackest communities. As my colleague Laura Bliss noted previously, Metro’s own data show that Metrorail passengers who make less than $30,000 a year are more likely to ride during off hours. For that story, Bliss was anticipating the burden that riders would feel from the temporary station closures imposed by WMATA’s “SafeTrack” program. The burden would be steeper if these stations were closed during off-peak hours altogether, of course. These aren’t passengers who will just take Uber instead.
As Bliss notes, many more low-income riders take Metrobus than Metrorail: Riders making less than $30,000 make up half of Metro’s bus passengers. Bus ridership will no doubt soar along the affected Metrorail lines when rail service is disconnected, but WMATA isn’t planning commensurate boosts in Metrobus service.
The District’s celebrated X2 bus, which is one of the busiest routes in the city—with more than 13,000 daily passengers, it sees more riders than all but 10 of the region’s 91 Metro stations—is surely one of the bus routes that would be hit hardest by new congestion. While Metro has taken steps to improve the X2’s notorious problem with punctuality, eliminating off-peak Metrorail ridership along the east end of the X2 corridor would undercut these gains.
The city isn’t standing by idly as Metro mulls service cuts. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council approved a unanimous measure calling on Metro to restore late-night service once the “SafeTrack” construction push comes to an end next spring. Curbing late-night service is a hit to D.C.’s working class; ending off-peak service entirely in D.C.’s low-income black communities would be a huge blow to the city.
Metro has to find the money somewhere. WMATA is not playing around about its budget crisis. But Metro authorities have to take race and class equity into consideration as they plan cost-saving measures, especially service cuts. Any changes that make Metrorail a much less equitable system make the city less fair and less sustainable.