"That's it for the rush hour - such as it was. Will the last person off the highway please sweep the pavement." -Steve Thompson WTOP traffic reporter
It was the end of the Fourth of July holiday week, and morning rush-hour traffic last Friday was even lighter than usual. But Steve Thompson wasn't telling Washington commuters anything they didn't already know: there are a lot fewer cars on the road these days.
On Shirley Highway in Virginia, the most heavily traveled automobile artery in the metropolitan Washington area, traffic engineers reported an 11 percent reduction in Saturday traffic early in June from the comparable day in 1978.
"We expect a much larger drop when we get the weekday June figures," said J. P. Mills, a traffic expert with the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation.
Faced with uncertain gasoline supplies and long lines at the filling stations, large numbers of Washingtonians are experimenting with alternatives to their automobiles.
Bicyle sales are up, new car pools are being formed and some Washingtonians having discovered walking. But the biggest shift in area transportation habits - at least for the moment - has found thousands of commuters discovering the good and the bad of Metro's bus and subway system.
In June, Metro ridership was up 25 percent over June of last year - the biggest one-month jump in Metro's history.
With rush-hour passengers squeezing into buses and sometimes balky subway cars at the rate of 125,000 new trips per day, the big problem is finding room for them.
"Metro has come from being nothing to being essential in three years," said General Manager Richard S. Page. "I think that's remarkable."
No one is willing to state that a long-term trend has been established. If the gasoline lines continue to shorten, motorists could return to their cars en mass just as they did in 1974.
That poses a perplexing dilemma for transportation planners in the public and private sectors.Should more trains, planes and buses be purchased? If they are, will there be anybody to use them once they are delivered?
Trend or no, some facts add up to at least a temporary change in the transportation habits of many Washingtonians:
Griffin Cycle in Bethesda has had a 50 percent increase in bicyle sales in the last two months. "At least half of my new customers . . . have been commuters who specifically mentioned they were switching to bikes to get to work," Nick Griffin said.
The number of airline passengers on domestic routes increased 10 percent from June of last year despite the grounding of the DC10, according to preliminary data at the Air Transport Association of America. While this may have been encouraged as much by new cut-rate fares as by the gasoline shortage, short-haul, local-service airlines in some cases experienced increases of 33 percent, the ATA said.
At Union Station, Amtrak employes sold 7,198 more tickets the first 15 days of this June than they did during the same time last June, an increase of 24 percent. "We know ridership is up in the northeast corridor," said Amtrak spokesman Joseph Vranich. "In fact, it's up in any relatively short-distance corridor around the country."
There has been a steady increase in requests for car pool "matches" at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). In April, the council's computer was able to match 1,370 potential car pool users; in May, 1,435; in June, 2,426. Past experience indicates that 10 to 15 percent of those matches will turn into real car pools.
If there is to be a big winner in the gasoline shortage in the Washington area, it could be Metro. The big question for Metro planners, however, is whether the current surge in ridership represennts a permanent change.
The answer is crucial.
For while there is a limit to what Metro can do, the Washington area may be in better shape to deal with a continued rise in public transit patronage than many other cities.
That is because is Metro has been holding on to old buses that it once planned to sell, and has been building a reserve fleet for just such a continngency as a gasoline crisis.
It would take Metro at least three months, probably more, to get the maximum amount of service on the streets it is capable of providing.
But before that clock even starts to run, the councils and boards that govern the metropolitan area's local jurisdictions must make a political decision to pay for more public transit. Until they make that decision, Metro won't grow.
"It's simple," said Eckhard Bennewitz, who keeps track of dollars and cents for Metro. "We have 257 buses that we can add over a period of months. All it takes is an increase in the subsidy of $5 million to $7 million." Metro's subsidy this year is about $100 million; it is projected at $120 million in fiscal 1980.
The only place that money can come from is local governments and local taxpayers.
It is one of the peculiar facts of public transit that the rush-hour rider - the one who fills buses and makes them look like moneymakers - actually increases the operating deficit when he steps on board.
While the local politicians are holding fingers to the wind to see if the gasoline shortage is real and deciding whether they want to pay for more public transit, people like Charlie Neal are trying out Metro.
"It's not bad, but it's not comfortable either," said Neal. "The subway is real crowded and the buses are even worse. I've had to wait for two or three buses at DuPont Circle before I can climb aboard, they're so crammed . . . I'm trying to figure out how I can ride by bike down to work."
Would 257 buses make Charlie Neal's ride more comfortably?Would many people who suddenly need transit be helped?
The Metro transit system is predicated on the assumption that buses will provide service from neighborhoods to the closest subway station, where the rider will transfer and take the train downtown.
For those 257 buses to help, the subway must be able to carry the riders the buses deliver, or the buses must go all the way downtown.
Secondly, if public transit is going to help individuals who need to find an alternative to the automobile, those individuals had better work downtown or in Rosslyn, Crystal City or the Pentagon.
Washington's public transit network assumes downtown employment. Bus routes and subway lines, present and planned, are oriented toward center city and the close-in Arlington County job centers.
There is no transit to speak for people who live in Hyattsville and work in Rockville, or who live in Annandale and work in Suitland.
The 1970 census showed that 56 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area were located in either the District of Columbia or Arlington County. In March, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments estimates, that percentage was 47.6
In other words, about half the people who need to get to work in the metropolitan area work outside of the core, and thus are less likely to be able to use public transit even if they want to.
"The farther out you get, the harder it is to find transit routes you can justify," said Edward Daniels, a transportation planner for Montgomery County. "It took four years for us to build ridership on a Randolph Road route to the point where we had to consider increasing service." Randolph Road is a major east-west artery across the top of urbanized Montgomery County.
There have been various proposals over the years to put express bus service on the Capital Beltway. The problem is the Beltway doesn't go anywhere except to intersecting radial highways, there are no facilities at interchanges for easy transfer from bus to bus, and the old privately owned D.C. Transit System lost its shirt on a Beltway experiment in the 1960s.
The Metro Board's budget committee all but rejected a proposed Beltway demonstration project recently.
The idea, according to Daniels, was to provide an experimental route between the Bethesda/National Institutes of Health area and the University of Maryland at College Park. For the first year, the service would be 100 percent federally funded. After that, local governments would either have to pick up the cost or kill the program. The estimated cost: $500,000.
There was little enthusiasm for the program.
With that kind of an expansion of public transit apparently not in the cards immediately, the issue becomes whether Metro can better serve commuters to the center of the metropolitan area.
That hinges, in large part, on whether the subway can handle the riders the buses deliver. In some ways, it has been a bad year for Metro. There have been two major transportation crisis this year - the tractors and snowstorm of the winter and the gasoline shortage of the summer.
Both times, Metro's subway was caught with dramatically increased demand at the same time one-third of its car fleet was in the garage for lack of spare parts.
In January-February, the missing parts were brushes for traction motors - the motors that drive and brake the Metro cars. Now, the shortage is in brake caliper links, devices that hold the brakes to the chassis.
The result has been that people have jammed into trains too short for the loads they were carrying. Six-car trains have been running instead of eight-car trains. It takes longer to get more people into fewer cars, the line slows down, delays become more frequent and the railroad doesn't run very well.
"We are going to give you better service on the subway system, because we are going to run nothing but eight-car trains," Page promised recently. To run both the Blue, Orange and Red lines during rush hour with eight-car trains and five-minute intervals between trains requires 232 cars. Metro exceeded that number last week for the first time in several weeks.
"Part of our problem," Page said, "is that all our cars are the same age and thus the same things wear out at the same time. We are still learning about them."
Theoretically, each car jammed to capacity can carry 225 people. That means that 52,200 people would fill Metro's cars if all eight-car trains were running at one time. The longer the rush hour lasts, the more people could be carried, but it is almost impossible to say what the capacity of the system is.
The same is true with the buses. Metro schedules 1,575 buses during the morning rush, 25 fewer than that during the evening.
Each bus makes about two trips a rush hour. A bus can comfortably carry about 60 people, although crowds of 70 are not unusual these days. Therefore, 257 buses making two trips per rush hour and carrying 65 people each would add 33,410 transit riders to the daily total. If the rush hour were elongated so that each bus could make three trips, more than 50,000 riders could be added.
That is the reason Page has pushed publicly for a substantial increase in staggered work hours.
Metro is doing some small things to ease the current crunch. Extra buses have been added along a few heavily traveled routes. "The biggest need is for people who live scheduler Millard L. Seay. "There is already pretty good service inside the Beltway."
But there are problems inside the Beltway as well. Regular riders find themselves standing more often or being left at the stop. "If we clear a stop within 15 minutes, we've met our standard," said Thomas Trimmer, director of Metro's bus operation.
Interestingly, the areas of Washington that have the heaviest traditional need for transit - the poorer, blacker sections of Southeast Washington and closer-in neighborhoods of Trinidad and Ivy City - have been less adversely affected by the gasoline shortage than their wealthier neighbors.
"They already had high-frequency transit service because they were already using," said John Drayson, a D.C. government transit planner.
Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties have asked for some increases in bus service in the weeks to come, specifically to meet increased demand on high-density lines.
"We're certainly not trying to create demand right now," said Joseph Alexander, a member of both the Fairfax County and Metro boards.
The big political question remains unanswered, however. Should the area's local governments order Metro (by providing the money) to go into a crash program to hire drivers and get some of their old, retired buses back in shape to run?
"What happens if we do?" asked Alexander. "In 1974 as soon as the gasoline shortage was over, ridership dropped again.Do we make a major investment, and then find that we have a lot of excess capacity?"
Alexandaer said he did not think the Metro board would be ready to address that question until the fall. That means the Fairfax board will have to be persuaded of the need first.
Kenneth Duncan, Prince George's County administrator, said some bus service will be added to Clinton and and effort is being made to increase parking in fringe lots around the Metro stations on the New Carrolton line.
"What makes it very difficult for us out here is the TRIM charter amendment," Duncan said. "More financing just isn't as easy for us as it is for Montgomery and Fairfax," Prince George's voters approved a referendum last November that limits the county's revenues - and thus its ability to increase appropriations for items such as Metro subsidies.
Beyond the question of room on the buses and subways, Metro has other problems that are exacerbated during a situation like this one.
It is hard to get information; some people have had to wait 40 minutes to get through the Metro's telephone information service.
The Farecard machines at the Metro subway stations are mystifying to first-time users and infuriating to long-time patrons. At the Silver Spring station the other morning, all of the Farecard vending machines were broken.
"Inevitably when I come down here in the morning I find 30 to 40 percent of the (Farecard) purchase machines are out of order," Henry Savage of Wheaton said.
Yet another factor making the switch to Metro anything but easy is the fact that bus and subway use requires exact change, Farecards and transfer slips, and it is almost impossible to get a straight answer about how much it costs to get from here to there.
The packed trains have also irritated regular riders.
"They ought to get somebody down from New York to show them how to run a subway system during rush hour," said Joyce Boetzl of Arlington. "I think it's a real good system most of the time, but during rush hour it's a disaster and a half. I'll go back to a car as soon as I can."
But clearly, some of the motorists who have switched to Metro have come to stay.
In January and February, when the tractors came and the snow fell, Metro subway ridership took a 40,000 rider-per-day leap. After the tractors left and the snow cleared, about 20,000 of those riders stayed with the system. CAPTION: Picture 1, Traffic appears to be down on the Shirley Highway. This 5:30 p.m. photo made near Springfield shows the artery, top to bottom, and I-495, left to right. by John McDonnell - The Washington Post; Chart, Metro Ridership, By Alice Kresse - The Washington Post; Picture 2, At the Metro Center downtown, evening rush-hour crowd awaits a Red Line train that goes to Silver Spring.