Vee Tucker, a bartender and banquet server in Washington, D.C., doesn’t know how she’s going to get home from work anymore. Starting this summer, the train she takes home to suburban Maryland, along with all other D.C. Metrorail lines, will be closed by the time she has cleaned up after her patrons, just before midnight.
Two weeks ago, while working an event, Tucker experienced what her future without rail service may be like. “People at this holiday party wanted to stay longer, so by the time we finished, it was 12:30 and the train had left,” Tucker says. “I don’t have a car. I can’t afford the $30 Uber to Landover [Maryland], so I thought I was going to have to sit in the banquet hall till the train came again at 7 a.m.”
Fortunately for Tucker, a coworker volunteered to pay for a Lyft—an option she knows is not sustainable long-term. She dismisses the idea of taking the bus, saying it would take two and a half hours and several bus transfers, during which she would have to stand outside by herself in parts of town she feels are unsafe.
Born and raised in Northwest D.C., Tucker, like many residents of neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, left the District because it was unaffordable. Now, she says, she may not even be able to travel to jobs in the very neighborhoods she was priced out of. “I’ll have to pay for Lyft or Uber or give up work—and I can’t afford either.”
Service workers are likely to face some of the worst effects of the Metro Board’s decision last Thursday to slash late-night rail service system-wide for two years in order to tackle the rail system’s immense maintenance backlog.
Under the new schedule, rail service will be cut off at 11:30 p.m. from Monday to Thursday nights, 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, and 11 p.m. Sunday nights— a significant cutback from the traditional weekday midnight closings and 3 a.m. weekend closings that were in place until a maintenance push began in June.
To visualize the challenges these workers will face, CityLab mapped out WMATA data on after-midnight ridership, alongside Census data on the geographic distribution of D.C. area service workers who use public transportation. In the first map below, you can see where most people are boarding Metro during late-night hours, based on WMATA’s weekly weekend ridership averages from September 2010 to February 2016. The bigger, darker dots indicate where more commuters are leaving from after midnight. Zoom in around the map to see more stations and click on each stop to see weekly averages of late-night riders entering these stations.
Unsurprisingly, neighborhoods with lots of clubs, bars, and restaurants, such as U Street, Dupont Circle, and Chinatown, averaged the most riders entrants during this period, reflecting both the workers and patrons going home late at night. Focusing on the considerable distances between where most late-night riders start their trips, and the communities where service workers tend to cluster, we can infer the distances many service workers have to travel after work, and the resulting difficulties that may arise from late-night service cuts.
As can be seen in the map above, most service workers, unable to afford rent in neighborhoods near the center of the city, cluster at the far edges of or beyond the District’s eastern quadrants, especially concentrated along the Metro lines that run east into Prince George’s County and north into Montgomery County. You can see this by zooming out and looking farther eastward on the map.
Rider exit data from WMATA shows that in communities with large concentrations of service workers, hundreds of people every weekend do rely on late-night service, particularly in communities northeast of D.C. Below is a map from WMATA showcasing late-night ridership and rider exit rates per stop on Fridays and Saturdays. Click on the stops to see late-night exits:
WMATA spokesman Richard Jordan says the late-night closures are necessary system-wide to give crews more time to do uninterrupted maintenance work. When WMATA first proposed shorter operating hours in October, the agency said it had just 33 train-free hours each week to perform repairs on the aging system, and it put forward four proposals, including the one it adopted last week, to get that number up to 41 hours per week.
“Metro uses time when the tracks are out of service to conduct maintenance, inspection and quality control work, as well as capital improvement efforts to replace or rehabilitate parts of the system,” WMATA said in that proposal. “The limited time available [for that work] led to a backlog of both routine maintenance efforts and safety critical improvements.”
Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, says that WMATA’s responsibility to ensure safety is paramount, but points out that the system-wide nature of the service cuts is also due, in part, to convenience for WMATA.
“There’s probably some ability for them to leave one or two lines open, but they've found it’s hard for people to plan their rides when there’s going to be irregular service disruptions,” says Lewis, who also notes that Metro gets more out of its work crews if they aren’t being constantly taken off the tracks in only a few hours. “Say you’re working at a stop like L’Enfant, which has tons of lines going through it. It’s really easy if you have all your equipment there to work on all four lines then and there. So it’s very convenient if there are no trains running on all four tracks.”
Neil Albert, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, argues that other major urban metro systems with similar track designs have been able to carry out maintenance while offering round-the-clock service.
“The general manager of WMATA got here a year ago, and he doesn’t have a sense of what WMATA means for D.C., and downtown in particular,” says Albert, citing the damaging effects the cuts will have on businesses downtown and the workers and patrons who make them thrive. “WMATA is not going to work on the entire system across the board every night. They should take a more targeted, less disruptive approach.” Albert suggests that if the system-wide cuts are indeed necessary, WMATA must create dedicated bus routes along the affected rail routes, running as frequently as possible.
Jordan, the WMATA spokesperson, did not go into specifics on what WMATA is planning to do to address the damage done by the service cuts. “There’s room for further adjustments down the road,” Jordan says. “We look at bus alterations at least twice a year. Sometimes we look at certain routes, sometimes we cut, merge routes for efficiency depending on ridership.” WMATA’s website includes a proposed supplemental bus service plan, but some transit advocates fear it will not be anywhere near the scale of what is necessary.
David Alpert, founder and president of Greater Greater Washington, a news site dedicated to the D.C. area, is skeptical that the Metro board will do enough to ensure that low-income service workers will have alternative means of getting home. “Ok, so you say you need to cut this, so then what are you going to replace it with?” says Alpert. “Their bus expansion plan is extremely anemic. It’s not enough, and there wasn’t even a public discussion of what is enough.”
Alpert notes that there are larger political considerations at play on the Metro board, and that these, along with the system’s need for constant maintenance, could mean the cuts will be permanent. “A lot of riders think this is going to be a two-year thing, but the transit people are all talking like this is going to be permanent,” Alpert says. “There are people who think that late-night service is not important because they see Uber and Lyft. The Maryland representatives see Metro as something the state needs for the rush-hour commuters. The service workers and college students coming late at night are less of a priority.”
“Why do I work two jobs? Because I have to pay my bills, not to pay Uber,” says Tucker, who argues the system cannot measure the value of its service solely by the revenues its smaller portion of late-night customers bring in. “Metro is not helping us by doing it this way.”
The ongoing debate over Metro’s late-night service points to a larger conflict over how to invest in public services. “People always say Metro should run more like a business,” says Alpert, referring to the attitudes of some on the Metro board. “The truth is that businesses always don’t serve a certain slice of customers. And if you accept that, then that means people in certain neighborhoods are going to be left out.”