The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A glimmer of hope as ridership rebounds for Metro and other transit systems

Metro ridership is posting increases. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Jeremy Munro never set out to defend Metro’s honor. He has a nonconformist ethos that would never allow him to become a shill for a transit agency viewed by some as a necessary evil: convenient for a densely packed region but frustrating with its delays and limited service hours.

Last week, as drivers flocked to Twitter to complain about the “climate rebels” blocking D.C. intersections to raise awareness for climate change, Munro coyly changed his Twitter display name to “Joyous DC Commuter,” denoting the protest-free Metro ride he took to work.

The truth is: He likes Metro.

“When the [station platform] board says your train is going to be there in five minutes, it’s going to be there in five minutes — give or take a few minutes,” said Munro, who works in the District managing art collection databases. “It works fairly well for what I need it for, which is commuting to and fro around the city.”

The mostly sunny outlook seems to be shared by millions of Americans who are returning to the rails — and other forms of public transportation — in a surprising upswing.

Americans took 2.5 billion passenger trips on public transportation in the second quarter of 2019 — 11 million more trips than during the same period last year, according to the latest report by the American Public Transportation Association.

The increase in subway ridership was largely driven by the New York subway and Metro.

Some places, including King County, Wash., Sacramento and Minneapolis, showed significant gains in light-rail ridership. Commuter rail systems in central Florida, Denver and New York also had big increases. And ridership for the Blacksburg, Va., bus system was up nearly 28 percent for the second quarter of the year, according to the transportation association’s report.

For transit officials, the optimistic snapshot affirms that the billions spent on infrastructure projects and maintenance overhauls in recent years have translated into better service that is bringing back customers.

From the archives: Metro sank into crisis despite decades of warnings

Metro reported that daily passenger trips increased 2.3 percent for the first six months of 2019, with ridership for April, May and June up 3.3 percent compared with the same period last year.

In New York, the country’s largest and busiest rapid transit system, ridership was up 2.6 percent for April, May and June.

Atlanta and Boston subways also posted ridership gains, while the other big-city systems — Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles — reported declines, according to the association report.

Still, officials find the data encouraging, especially for cities such as Washington and New York, where the troubled transit systems are more likely to make headlines for their problems than gains.

“My sense is that there’s a couple of things going on,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation. “One is that they’ve made some strategic investments. A couple of years ago, both [Metro and New York] have really struggled with some station shutdowns, and now they’re winning back riders.”

For public transit agencies losing riders, microtransit might be an answer

Indeed, while figures show that New York subway ridership in the first six months of 2019 was down slightly when compared with 2018, the surge of riders in the spring was good news for a transportation agency that has been losing riders and is under pressure to make dramatic changes. Late last month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approved a $51.5 billion improvement plan that will create more access for riders with disabilities, add nearly 2,000 subway cars and make critical repairs at about 175 stations.

At Metro, the ridership gains come after years of steep declines, starting in 2015, following the fatal L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident and continuing as decades of disrepair and neglect caught up with the system. The year-long SafeTrack rebuilding program shut down portions of lines for days and weeks at a time, and some of those riders never returned. There were fare increases and service cuts.

Between 2009 and May 2018, Metro lost an average of 124,000 trips per day, that’s equal to the population of Hartford, Conn., if each trip represented one rider. At its peak in 2008, Metro had an average weekday ridership of 750,000. In 2018, average weekday ridership fell to 595,000, a threshold that hadn’t been crossed since 2000.

Metro ridership hits low point

But riders have begun to return and the system is showing steady long-term growth, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

Average weekday ridership declined the past three years, but Metro projects average weekday trips will hit 610,000 this year, a calculation that includes real statistics up to September.

“What we’ve seen is that Metrorail ridership has stabilized and even begun to show some growth,” Stessel said. “Metrorail has been posting year-over-year ridership gains each month starting in February and continuing through the spring.”

To the transit agency, this year has been especially encouraging because the increase is happening even while factoring losses of nearly 50,000 riders a day during the federal government shutdown in January and losses related to the summer-long closure of six Blue and Yellow line stations for a platform rebuilding project. Ridership has rebounded to 90 percent of pre-summer shutdown levels, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said at a recent board meeting.

Officials warn residents to prepare for 15-week shutdown

Metro officials credit the agency’s maintenance programs and service improvements. They tout the transit system’s weekday on-time performance of 90 percent, and have backed it up with a rush-hour guarantee that credits passengers for trips delayed by 10 minutes or more.

Software engineer James Pizzurro, a rider advocate who has used Metro for eight years, however, said people shouldn’t draw conclusions as to what’s behind gains.

“It’s certainly good and it’s hard to argue that there aren’t more riders using the system if that’s what the numbers show,” Pizzurro said. “The question is as to why before making sure it’s a long-term trend.”

Patrick J. Foye, chairman and chief executive of New York’s MTA, said infrastructure improvements since the launch of an $800 million Subway Action Plan have translated into ridership gains for his system. MTA boasts similar metrics to Metro, with weekday on-time performance of 84 percent, up from 69 percent in August 2018.

But beyond MTA’s upgrades, which have included overhauling more than 2,500 cars, installing more than 50 miles of rail and being more upfront with riders about delays instead of a generic, exasperating “train traffic ahead” warning, Foye said “a buoyant state and regional economy” has brought riders back to rail. The most affordable way for employees to get to those new jobs? The subway.

Solo drivers

A regional commuting survey released last month by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that people driving to work alone remains the most used method of commuting, but it is decreasing — from 61 percent in 2016 to 58 percent this year. At the same time, the satisfaction rate of those who use Metro as their primary mode of commuting was 56 percent, up from 48 percent in 2016.

But some transit advocates said the emphasis on improving Metro has allowed other transit to suffer. Andrew Kierig, vice chairman of Metro’s Riders Advisory Council, said the growing maintenance needs of Metrobus are repeatedly deferred. The transportation association report showed that while Americans took more bus trips in the second quarter of this year than last year, particularly in cities such as Oakland, Calif., and Denver, Metrobus reported a 3.4 percent decrease in ridership for the first six months of this year.

“Rail is great,” Kierig said. “I take rail everyday. But for people who take the bus every day and can’t live next to a Metro station, they don’t have a choice but to take the bus.”

Metrobus service barely passing according to new report card

Munro, who grew up in New Hampshire and drove everywhere until he moved to Columbia Heights nearly a year ago, said he knows Metro still has a lot of work ahead to win back customers. He, for example, wants later hours, free bus-to-train transfers, and a fare system that requires riders to only swipe their card once, similar to New York’s.

While social media anger toward Metro developed over years of service declines, safety lapses and a perception of indifference, Munro said, the bashing now seems more like ranting than constructive criticism. As an outsider who has never relied on public transit until now, Munro said Metro has important environmental and intrinsic value.

Rides give him time to read books on his phone. The brutalist architecture of station ceilings, tortoiseshell awnings and long escalator climbs into the heart of the District with streams of people of all backgrounds gives a feeling of being part of something. “It unites us,” he said.

Most importantly, he said, Metro takes cars off the road.

“Even if [Metro] is what all these people say, it’s still a better option when you’re staring down the barrel of climate catastrophe,” he said.

As he said he saw people on Twitter recently play down recent Metro successes, he again came to the system’s defense, calling out some of its regular critics for “normalizing” a culture that allows people to think Metro is inherently bad.

“People at work still joke with me about how Metro is always on fire, or the trains are delayed all the time, but not only is that more often than not wrong, it diminishes the people for who Metro is their best (or only!) choice,” he tweeted.

“Like people die everyday on area roadways, drivers and or peds/bikes alike!” he added. “That is not the case on Metro!”

Metro will stay open late as long as Nationals are in the playoffs

Bowser renews push for Metro to restore late-night hours

Metro board revises ethics code in wake of scandal