The Silver Line opens in Fairfax and fewer commuters are riding the bus

August 25

A Fairfax Connector bus drops off passengers at the new Wiehle-Reston East Metro station. (Luz Lazo/The Washington Post)

The opening of Metro’s Silver Line last month was good news for Fairfax County commuters.  So far, it doesn’t look like it has been so great for the county’s bus service.

Ridership numbers for the Fairfax Connector bus system— for the second and third weeks of Silver Line service— show declines in bus usage when compared to last year:

Ridership Week ending Week ending
8/2/2014 8/9/2014
FY15 206,380 207,778
FY14 220,420 220,119
% Change -6.8% -5.9%

Transit officials say the ridership drop could be a reflection of changes in travel patterns, not necessarily less use of public transit.  Some possible scenarios:

  • More people who used the bus to connect with rail at the West Falls Church Metro station before the Silver Line opened are probably now parking at the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station, avoiding the bus ride.
  • Fairfax residents who live near one of the five new Silver Line stations, who previously rode the bus to West Falls Church, could be biking, walking, or getting a ride to the new rail line.

Let’s not forget, however, that last month’s restructuring of Fairfax Connector service in anticipation of the Silver Line created a lot of confusion among riders. Riders who were unaware of the changes were left waiting for buses that had changed routes and some said that their commutes had changed so much as a result of the Silver Line related changes that they planned to go back to using their cars.

About 40 percent of Fairfax Connector routes changed when the Silver Line opened July 26.  The buses that took commuters to the Orange Line at West Falls Church were redirected to serve the new rail line.  As part of the changes the Connector also added new routes, including three circulator routes to serve the Tysons area.

Fairfax Connector officials said they will have ridership numbers for these new routes after Labor day. Days after these bus routes launched, some buses were mostly empty. For another comparison we have also requested ridership data for the months pre-Silver Line.

Fairfax Connector section chief Nick Perfili said it is too early to make any conclusions about the impact of the Silver Line on bus service. Transit users are still trying out the new commuting options and it could take a few months before bus ridership  stabilizes.

The good news is that while bus ridership appears to be on the decline, there is a significant increase in Metrorail usage in central and northern Fairfax.  Weekday Metrorail boardings have increased about 28 percent, from an average of 28,828 in August 2013 to an average of 36,981 this month,  Perfili said.

The decline in weekday bus ridership also can be explained in the increased usage of the county’s park-and-ride lots in the corridor, Perfili said.  The number of cars in park-and-ride lots is up from 2,664 a day in August 2013 to 3,059 this month.  That’s a  15 percent increase.  Use of the lot at the Silver Line terminus in Reston, the only new station with parking, has been strong.

“There likely have also been increases in kiss-and-ride, bicycle and pedestrian access, although these have not been measured,” Perfili said.

And although weekday ridership has dropped in the Dulles corridor, weekend usage of the Fairfax Connector is up, officials say.

It is fair to note that August tends to be one of the lightest months for transit ridership because many people are vacationing. For a better assessment we need to wait until after Labor Day when many people return to their regular schedules.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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