On a recent morning, David Keer stepped down the stairs of his Washington townhouse, on his way to the doctor.
The appointment was out in College Park, Md., but he wasn’t headed to his car. He hadn’t driven, in fact, for three weeks. Well, except for one time.
It had been three weeks since he’d had to deal with being cut off by other drivers, been tailgated, had to hit the brakes to avoid bicyclists darting in front of him, or dealt with the myriad other things that make driving in the Washington area stressful.
He doesn’t miss it, said the 62-year-old Keer, one of 50 people in the Washington area who is getting free Lyft rides and credits on Metro from the ride-sharing company in return for not driving for a month.
“I’ve found that I wasn’t really enjoying driving in D.C.,” he said.
In fact, the one time he did drive his car was a week earlier, when he took the 2013 Hyundai Sonata to a Toyota dealership in Suitland, Md. He sold it and then took a Lyft back home.
He’s also not going to miss paying the $1,600 a year in car insurance either, he said.
“$1,600 buys a lot of rides on Lyft,” he said.
At least in Keer’s case, the experiment seems to be making the point Lyft had wanted by giving the 50 people $746 in credit for Lyft, Metro and the hourly car rental service Zipcar for the month.
A report in April by the transportation consulting firm INRIX estimated that it costs $13,297 annually to own a car in the D.C. area, making the region the fourth most expensive nationally. Those costs include buying or leasing the vehicle, fuel, parking, maintenance, tolls and taxes.
But by spending a portion of that amount on ride-sharing, Metro and other services, people are able to get around just fine without owning a car, said Kate Glantz, Lyft’s mid-Atlantic marketing manager.
“Cars are no longer representing the idea of freedom,” she said. “People are finding that being without a car is liberating.”
But Keer’s experiment without a car also illustrates one of the problems Metro faces as it tries to reverse declining ridership after cutting service and facing competition from ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber.
It’s a problem for Metro — and for other drivers on already congested streets — that as Keer left the townhouse he shares with his husband, he wasn’t headed for a bus or a train.
He could have taken the B2 bus near his home, but it would have meant transferring to the 17 route to College Park — an hourlong excursion.
He also could have walked the 10 minutes, with the aid of his cane, to the Eastern Market Metro station, taken the Orange, Silver or Blue lines and switched to the Green Line at L’Enfant Plaza, before walking the half-mile to the doctor’s office from the College Park-University of Maryland station.
That also would have take an hour, and only if things on Metro went perfectly, he noted.
Instead, he called for a Lyft and serenely stared out the window for the 20-minute ride. “This is much less of a hassle,” he said.
Metro isn’t alone in facing more competition. Researchers in a range of studies nationally arrived at figures showing anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of ride-hailing trips would have otherwise been taken on mass transit.
A survey in February by the Metropolitan Planning Council, a planning agency for cities and towns in the Boston area, found 40 percent of weekday ride-sharing trips happen during the morning or afternoon commutes, and most of them involve only one passenger. Forty-two percent of passengers said they would have taken mass transit had ride-sharing not been available.
The Metropolitan Planning Council study concluded that 15 percent of the rush-hour ride-sharing trips add cars to area roadways.
In Washington, declining ridership has only been exacerbated by shortened operating hours, track work and less frequent weekend service.
In a sign of recognition that it needs to do better to keep its riders, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld recently proposed a budget that included extending rush-hour train frequency later in the mornings and evenings.
It remains to be seen, though, if Metro’s board will approve asking Washington, Maryland and Virginia lawmakers to spend $20 million more for longer peak hours and other improvements.
While the growing popularity of ride-sharing companies is a problem for Metro, Lyft’s experiment also illustrates why some transportation experts are worried it’s a problem for anyone stuck in traffic.
Lyft and other car-sharing companies argue that by giving riders the ability to share trips with strangers at a lower fare, they’re helping ease congestion because fewer people are traveling alone on the roads.
In a statement, the company acknowledged, every vehicle on the road contributes to congestion, but Lyft accounts for less than 2 percent of vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. today.
“The majority of Lyft rides take place outside of commute hours, such as nights and weekends, when there is little to no congestion and limited alternative transportation options. Lyft is integral to improving the health of cities by reducing car ownership, congestion and greenhouse emissions,” the statement said.
There are of course some who’d embrace transit if they could be persuaded to give up their car.
One of them, 18-year-old Ben Nelson, recalled how he saved his money through high school — working part-time at the Clarendon Trader Joe’s and refurbishing and selling classic sneakers online — to raise enough for the 2018 Subaru Impreza he bought a few months ago.
“It felt like freedom,” he said.
But then came realities — the cost of gas, trying to find parking on the street by Trader Joe’s, insurance. And then another driver making a U-Turn smashed into him, putting the new car out of commission, Nelson said while on a bus headed to work at Trader Joe’s.
There are times when the bus is late and others when it smells like urine, said Nelson, who is also participating in the Lyft program. But he said he’ll keep taking it after the month. “I don’t miss paying for gas, or worrying about getting into an accident,” he said.
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