As recently as 2013, about a half of Washington workers below or just above the poverty line took public transportation to get to and from work, according to U.S. Census estimates.
But as Metro fares have risen, hours for train service have been cut and gentrification has made it more difficult for low-income workers to live near rail stations, workers making lower wages in Washington and in Arlington have become less likely to commute by transit.
According to an analysis of five years of American Community Survey figures released this month, 43.7 percent of an estimated 34,148 D.C. workers making less than 150 percent of the poverty rate commuted by public transportation between 2013 and 2017. That’s down 5 percent from the previous five years, when the census estimated that 48.3 percent of lower-income workers took public transit.
The drop-off was even steeper when compared to 2013 alone. While it’s important to note that estimates for any single year have a larger margin of error than those based on surveys taken over five years, the census estimated that 52 percent of lower-wage Washington workers commuted by transit in 2013. But only 41.4 percent did in 2016. Transit use by the low-income workers fell further — to 36.8 percent — in 2017.
On July 1 of that year, Metro raised train fares by between 10 and 25 cents, and bus fares by 25 cents, while also opening train stations later on Sundays and closing them earlier on weekends. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel, though, discounted how much of a factor those changes played in the numbers because they went into effect halfway through the last year of the survey period.
Instead of taking buses or trains, the five years of data showed, more of those making less than 150 percent of the poverty rate — which translates this year to $18,210 for a single person or $31,170 for a family of three — are driving, walking or riding bikes to work.
Certainly, workers in general are less likely to use public transit than before for a variety of reasons, including the rise of competitors like Lyft and Uber, as well as maddening disruptions from Metrorail track work. While 38 percent of all Washington workers commuted by public transit between 2008 and 2012, only 36 percent did so over the past five years. But according to the census figures, use of Washington’s public transportation system saw a steeper decline among those making less — a 5 percent decline, compared to 2 percent.
The decline “should be a wake-up call that our system isn’t serving our community well,” said Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a progressive think tank.
Digging deeper into the numbers, the decline was particularly pronounced for those making just above the poverty rate — $12,140 for a single person or $20,780 for a family of three. While 50.3 percent of them took public transportation for work between 2008 and 2012, only 43.5 percent did over the past five years.
The total number of low-income workers estimated to have used public transit for their commutes dropped by only 344 people in the past five years over the previous five-year period, a decline of only about 2 percent, but an increase in the total number of lower-wage workers in the region has meant a decline in the percentage of the region’s poor using transit for work.
Census figures showed the total number of low-income workers using transit has not changed greatly. And Stessel argued the relative stability in the numbers showed the use of the system by lower-income people has been “resilient,” particularly when compared to a 16 percent decline in overall Metrorail ridership between 2012 and 2017.
He said also that low-income people are continuing to make up a significant share of Metro’s ridership, and that hasn’t changed. He cited a 2014 Metro survey of bus riders that found 68 percent had a household income of less than $40,000 annually, up from 51 percent in 2008. Another Metro survey of rail riders in 2016 found 11 percent in 2016 had an annual household income of less than $30,000, the same as in 2012.
But over the last 10 years, the census estimates the number of workers in D.C. earning low wages has grown from 31,596 between 2008 and 2012 to 34,148 over the past five years.
Indeed, the census figures for the past five years compared to the previous five also showed little change in what percentage of Washington bus and train riders have lower incomes. Those making less than 150 percent of poverty made up 12 percent of those commuting by public transportation in Washington the past five years. That’s about the same as the 13.3 percent who did the previous five-year period.
When viewed in terms of the share of Washington’s poor that is being served by transit, however, the numbers show that a smaller percentage now choose public transportation to get to and from work.
Last Thursday, Metro’s board began considering General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s budget proposal, which recommended a number of service improvements to try to win back riders. Though ideas like running frequent peak hour service for longer in the mornings and afternoons could attract more riders of all incomes, board members concerned about the proposal are considering charging peak fares longer as well, a move that could hurt poor riders.
Advocates, pointing to the census figures, say more needs to be done specifically for low-income riders.
New York City, for instance, is planning to begin providing half-priced fare cards next year to those living below the poverty line. Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, in an interview, called such a subsidy a “good idea,” though Metro would have to figure out how to do it and it would cost a large amount of money.
Metro now subsidizes fares for seniors and those with disabilities, but not for those experiencing poverty.
On top of fare increases last year, shortened rail hours made it more difficult for lower-income workers to take public transportation, said Benjy Cannon, spokesman for Unite Here, Local 25, which represents 7,500 hospitality workers in the Washington area.
Saying it needed more time to make repairs overnight, Metrorail in 2017 began closing earlier — at 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 11 p.m. on Sundays, while also opening an hour later, at 8 a.m., on Sundays. “But hotels run 24-7," Cannon said. “We have people going to and from work at all hours.”
Aliyah Nelson, who was driving home one day last week after getting off work as a banquet chef at the Marriott Marquis hotel, near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, is among those who’ve been affected by the shorter hours, though she makes too much to be considered low-income. She used to take Metro back when stations opened at 7 a.m. on Sundays.
Nelson is supposed to be at work at 8 a.m, the same time stations now open. With trains no longer an option, she tried taking Lyft but found it cost $20 to get to work from her home in Temple Hills, Md. Another unappealing option, according to Metro’s online trip planner, involved taking three buses and a two-hour journey.
On other days she works a double shift. By the time she gets off work, all the trains have stopped running.
“Metro is under the impression that everybody works a 9-5 job,” said Nelson, who now drives.
She’s not alone. The census estimated that 22 percent of the lower-income workers drove alone to work between 2008 and 2012. The figure rose slightly to 26 percent in the last five years. The percentage of workers walking, biking or going to work another way inched up slightly.
Fewer lower-income workers are commuting by public transit in Arlington County as well. A quarter of the workers used transit to get to work over the past five years, down from 29 percent the previous five. The figures, however, didn’t change in Fairfax County, where 14 percent of low-income workers used transit, or in Montgomery County, where a quarter of the workers commuted on public transportation.
Stessel also noted that Metrobus’ $2 fare is lower than many other cities, like the $2.75 that bus riders pay in New York and San Francisco.
But last year’s increases disproportionately hurt low-income workers, and particularly those who have more than one job, said Jaime Contreras, who heads the D.C.-area office of SEIU, Local 32BJ. The union represents an array of workers in the D.C. area who work odd hours, from custodians in federal offices to the workers who clean airport terminals and plane cabins.
Those who have to go to and from more than one job end up having to pay the higher fares more times each day than other workers, he said.
David Alpert, founder and president of the civic group Greater Greater Washington, said the fare increases also hurt those who have to take a combination of a bus and a train to work. Because Metro didn’t increase its 50-cent discount on transferring from one mode to another, those making transfers end up paying higher fares on each leg of their trip.
An internal Metro staff report laying out ideas for increasing ridership earlier this year also noted that fares disproportionately affect lower-income workers because they are less likely to get transportation subsidies through work. While 66 percent of the highest-income Metrorail riders get subsidies, only 10 percent of the lowest-income riders do, said the report, which estimated that subsidizing fares for low-income people would mean 20,000 to 35,000 more trips for the system annually.
Also hurting lower-income workers is that gentrification has pushed them further from areas close to train stations and bus routes, said Yesim Sayin Taylor, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center.
Indeed, a 2015 census report found that those making $25,000 to $49,999 had made up 29 percent of the workers living within a half-mile of a rail station in Washington between 2006 and 2009. But as housing prices have increased, the percentage of people making that much around rail dropped to 22 percent, between 2011 and 2013.
“This has created a terrible imbalance in housing near Metro stations, resulting in people with less means having to go much further than wealthy people to access Metro stations,” said Paul Mackie, research director for Mobility Lab, the research arm of Arlington County commuter services.
One who has a long way to go for work is Harry Wright. One midnight recently, Wright got off work as a security guard at Sibley Memorial Hospital’s Grand Oaks Assisted Living facility with an expensive two-hour commute still ahead of him.
If the transit system were built for workers like him, he would have taken a short bus ride to Friendship Heights to catch the Metro, then gotten on a Red Line train to Gallery Place, where he would have switched to the Green Line to Greenbelt and finally taken a bus home to Laurel, Md. A long haul to be sure, but warmer, and at $6.45, cheaper than what awaited him.
With the train stations long closed, he waited until 12:30 a.m. for the Route D6 bus downtown.
At 1 a.m., he was waiting at a lonely bus station at 17th Street Northwest and K Street Northwest for the Route S2 bus. In his backpack was a martial arts stick he carries, just in case.
“This kicks my tail,” he said after he got on the next bus 15 minutes later.
It was 2 a.m. when he reached the Silver Spring transit center, where the last bus to Laurel had left hours earlier. So he called for a Lyft.
He’d like to buy a car to avoid all this, he said. But having to pay $25 for the Lyft to get home makes that hard, he said. And he has a wedding to save up for.
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