The first week of Metro’s SafeTrack project was expected to be hard on riders. But it was the miles-long backups, gummed-up side streets and general misery on the road that had many talking.
After a long and bitter laugh, commuter bus driver Ken Huster managed to sum up the week thusly: “Horrible.”
Which it was.
But measuring the extent of that pain, and how much of it should be chalked up to riders abandoning Metro because of the severely reduced service on the Orange and Silver lines, isn’t a straightforward exercise.
That’s in part because commuters keep searching for better ways to get where they’re going, bouncing congestion hot spots around the region and to different times each day.
Or they decide to work from home. Or take the bus.
“People are still in trial-and-
error mode,” said Robert Griffiths, a longtime transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG).
The early, spotty data does show that drivers spent an average of 10 to 20 percent more time on highway trips during the first three weekday mornings of Metro’s safety surge, which launched June 4, according to COG’s chief transportation planner, Kanti Srikanth.
Travel times in downtown Washington at 8 a.m. Tuesday were up 27 percent over the average, to 21 minutes, according to District Department of Transportation figures. At 9 a.m. they were 49 percent above average, also reaching 21 minutes per trip. But by Thursday, those increases had largely dissipated. The 8 a.m. figures were up just 3 percent over the average, while the 9 a.m. numbers were 12 percent higher. The average travel time for both was 18 minutes.
“So, people are learning. People are figuring things out,” Srikanth said.
But as an engineer, he cautioned against reaching expansive conclusions. There is already a certain level of play built into the system for monitoring traffic counts and travel times, he said. The number of people traveling on any particular day can easily vary by 5 percent or more, based on the habits and whims of the region’s drivers.
“It is plausible that it has something to do with the safety surge. It makes sense to expect that,” Srikanth said. And the evolution over the week is consistent with people changing their time and mode of travel according to the circumstances. But, based on the numbers he’s seen thus far, “this is all within the natural variation on any given day. That’s the key thing to keep in mind.”
Srikanth said the region is already beset by “recurring and nonrecurring congestion, even without the safety surge,” so parsing which snarls are typical and which are atypical is tough.
In fact, the early numbers show both moderate increases and decreases in total daily traffic last week, depending on the day and location, making the picture blurry.
On Wednesday, for example, combined traffic on the bridges that carry Interstates 395 and 66 from Arlington to the District was somewhat lower than the average of recent weeks, according to data collected by DDOT.
“The traffic volumes are in line with historic performance,” said DDOT Director Leif A. Dormsjo. “We’re not seeing major shifts in travel patterns.”
Much more regionwide data collection and analysis would be needed to know how many cars might have been driven by riders diverted from Metro, he added.
Metro said its ridership systemwide was down early in the week by 1 or 2 percent. Average weekday ridership is about 710,000.
Metro’s first surge involves continuous single-tracking from East Falls Church to Ballston in Northern Virginia, affecting the Orange and Silver lines and an estimated 255,000 trips per day. It’s the first of 15 projects in the transit agency’s nearly year-long maintenance blitz to improve safety and reliability and help restore the system to a “state of good repair.”
The region’s Transportation Planning Board plans to hold monthly debriefings with a parade of local experts from affected jurisdictions over the next 10 months. The goal is to collect reliable numbers and gain deeper insights, both for later surges and for a more textured understanding of the region’s transportation system overall.
A one-hour snapshot Tuesday morning showed traffic was up between 3 percent and 6 percent at spots along a handful of key arteries, including Route 7, Route 50, Route 123 and I-66, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Some places were hit worse. Eastbound on Lee Highway, just inside the Capital Beltway, traffic jumped 13 percent over the previous Tuesday.
A series of crashes Tuesday and Wednesday created problems for drivers headed into the District from Virginia, and a possible suicide attempt on Connecticut Avenue and a shooting at North Capitol Street and New York Avenue NW in the District gridlocked commuters there as well, officials said.
When this first surge ends Thursday, the region has only a two-day break before the second: a 16-day shutdown on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines between the Eastern Market and Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road Metro stations, leaving new swaths of the region to face fresh distress.
Beyond the aggregate numbers was plenty of individual discomfort.
It took legal assistant Judy Valusek an hour and 15 minutes to travel two miles from her K Street NW office to the 14th Street bridge on Tuesday.
“You are trapped,” Valusek said.
Thousands of people shook up their routines to try to cope.
Some shifted driving times; others worked at home when they could.
In Arlington, biking soared. Along the Custis Trail in Rosslyn, a major commuter route, the county’s automated bike counters tallied 2,724 bikers Tuesday. That was almost twice the 1,400 daily average last June, according to Dennis Leach, the county’s transportation director. There were other sizable jumps near the Key Bridge and on the Mount Vernon trail along Reagan National Airport, he said.
“These are the numbers we see on Bike to Work Day,” Leach said, referring to the annual event that urges workers to try a bike commute.
Many Metro riders are also sticking with transit and packing onto crowded buses running through Arlington, he added.
“There is a behavior shift underway, at least short term,” Leach said.
Metrobus ridership was up an average of 20 percent last week on key routes connecting Northern Virginia to the District, including the 3Y (which runs from East Falls Church to McPherson Square), the 38B (Ballston to Farragut West) and the 5A (Dulles International Airport to L’Enfant Plaza), Metro said. Supplemental 5A buses, added to help during the surge, had been terminating at Rosslyn last week but will extend to L’Enfant Plaza starting Monday “due to demand,” a Metro spokeswoman said.
Everyday traffic annoyances were amplified by the added pressures on the road network.
Trucks double-parked along commuter routes stymied fellow drivers, some of whom groused that authorities weren’t keeping up. The D.C. Department of Public Works, which heads parking enforcement, says it added an unspecified number of officers along routes from the Key Bridge to the central business district and brought on four additional tow trucks to help enforce extended rush-hour parking restrictions.
Overall, tickets during the first five days of the surge were up 5 percent, to 19,243, over a comparable period in May. But rush-hour citations were up more than 40 percent, to 1,540, according to city figures.
Metro, for its part, has encouraged riders to seek other options during the surges, and transit agency data suggests that they are taking that advice. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said ridership west of Ballston was down an average of 25 percent last week.
Helping matters from Metro’s perspective, ridership in that area from 6 to 7 p.m. was down 41 percent — while it was up marginally in the surrounding time periods — meaning customers were making adjustments and staggering their commutes.
“People are doing some things we hoped they would do to spread out their peak periods,” Wiedefeld said, adding that more riders than usual were entering the system closer to 5 a.m., when Metro opens, rather than at the height of the morning rush.
Jack Requa, Metro’s executive managing officer, appeared in Prince George’s County last week along with county officials, who warned of major disruptions when line closures with a bigger impact on Maryland kick in on Saturday. Free buses are being put in place to help.
Requa said Metro “lost about 1 or 2 percent of ridership systemwide.” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said that those figures were for the first couple days but that “as SafeTrack has progressed and customers figured out what works best for them, the ridership has recovered. . . . Averaged out over the past week, ridership overall remains relatively unchanged.”
The first week was “relatively smooth,” Requa said.
Now there are just 40 more to go.
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.