After years of growth followed by relatively steady ridership, the Washington region’s bus systems are losing riders. The key reason: Metro’s troubles.
“Our ridership is heavily influenced on how Metrorail is performing, so if Metrorail ridership goes down, our bus ridership goes down,” said Raymond Mui, director of planning and scheduling with the Alexandria Transit Company, which has seen ridership on its DASH system drop 4.5 percent in the past two years.
Metro’s weekday ridership is down 6 percent compared with fiscal 2015, and weekend ridership is down 12 percent. What’s more, according to the agency’s second-quarter financial report, ridership remains at levels not seen in 10 years.
The agency acknowledges that chronic service disruptions and operational woes are contributing to the decline as frustrated riders abandon the system for other options.
“A lot of people don’t take transit anymore because Metrorail has become so unreliable,” Mui said. “The single-tracking, bus bridges and reduction of service over the weekends has caused a lot of people to no longer use Metro.”
Metro, however, can’t be blamed for the entire decline. Falling bus ridership in the Washington region mirrors a national trend that experts say is due to a variety of factors, including changing job markets, falling gas prices and the growing popularity of other transportation options such as biking and app-based services such as Uber and Lyft.
Transportation officials say they are concerned that some riders may be returning to their cars, at least for discretionary use, though there is no evidence, they say, that the decline in transit use is contributing to the region’s worsening traffic congestion.
“We have more teleworkers, more part-time workers and less people in general are making commuting trips,” said Bob Griffiths, a chief transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “That’s affecting both auto travel and transit.”
Still, poor Metro service appears to be a big factor.
Metrobus, the nation’s sixth-largest bus system with an average of 465,000 daily riders, saw a 3 percent decline in the first half of the fiscal year compared with the same period the previous year. Even some of the District’s most robust bus corridors — 16th and 14th streets — experienced ridership drops. Metro officials concede that “there is evidence that rail ridership losses are impacting bus.”
For example, bus-to-rail transfers were down more than bus-only trips, Metro said. The declines in the regional transit system, however, aren’t as severe as those in the suburban bus networks.
In addition to DASH, the bus systems in Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties also have experienced ridership losses. Ridership declines of the last quarter vary by jurisdiction, ranging from 4 percent in Alexandria to 15 percent in Prince George’s.
“It hasn’t been a particularly exciting, high-end period for news about transit in the region,” said Martin Harris, an associate director of transportation in Prince George’s. The disruptions within the Metro system, he said, contribute to a perception across the region that transit is not a good option.
“If people don’t believe that transit is operating efficiently and effectively, they tend to be more skittish about what they do with their own specific branch of that transit system.”
Washington, home of the federal government, also is more likely to be impacted by actions that affect the federal workforce, such as sequestration and the reduction of the federal transit subsidy. The region also has experienced a substantial increase in the number of workers who telecommute, spurred, in part, by federal government initiatives. As many as 27 percent of Washington’s labor force works from home at least once a week compared with 19 percent in 2007, according to a study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The decline in transit use also is a blow to the region’s leaders who have been working to entice residents out of their cars. Major projects, including the Silver Line Metro extension, have been touted as ways to draw more people to transit in a region where, traditionally, the car has been king.
The good news is that so far, the declines in transit use are not translating into increases in driving, said Griffiths, who has been studying the region’s traffic patterns for the past decade. The share of commuting by driving and by transit has remained flat, he said, and in recent years the average vehicle miles traveled per person decreased from about 26 miles to 23 miles.
The bad news is that preliminary data from traffic counts at various key points of the region indicate an uptick of about 2 percent in traffic in 2015, he said.
But it’s unclear how much of that can be attributed to commuters leaving transit. Griffiths said gas prices averaging $1.75 per gallon in the metro area, about 50 cents lower than a year ago and the lowest in years, could be to blame.
The bus ridership declines are still low enough that they aren’t a major concern, but they do indicate a need to reexamine the current service.
“Frankly, a lot of the bus service in the Washington metro region is kind of 1960s service, if even that,” said David Snyder, chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and a member of the Falls Church City Council. “Just like we need to reinvest in Metrorail, we need to take a regional look at our bus service and make it more useful for people so that they don’t get caught with big time lapses when they go from one service to another. We need to make it more attractive.”
Better bus shelters and real-time bus-arrival information in the suburbs would be a start, Snyder said. Some local officials say efforts are underway to incorporate such amenities where they don’t already exist. But, besides those enhancements, Snyder said, attracting more riders also requires improving service with things such as dedicated bus lanes that would allow faster and more frequent service.
The Fairfax Connector, which saw an 8 percent decline in ridership in fiscal 2015, is investing in real-time bus-arrival technology to launch this year. The ridership decline there comes despite a massive restructuring of the county’s system that included the addition of 15 new routes to better serve the Silver Line when it opened in July 2014.
In Prince George’s, where ridership on the Bus fell nearly 6 percent from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2015, the agency completed the installation of bike racks on buses last year, an initiative that officials say was long overdue but responds to the demands of residents.
Officials around the region also say that their crusade to get more people to use transit hasn’t been in vain. While bus ridership has experienced some losses, there has been growth in other areas, including the use of the bike-share system, Capital Bikeshare, and more bike commuting. And, this year’s restoration of the federal transit pretax benefit to $255 a month from $130 should help bring some riders back.
There also is the expectation that Metro will make a turn for the best under the leadership of new General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and the progress of the system’s $5.5 billion reconstruction, which has come with years of track work.
“We believe that when Metro finally catches up, when we are finally able to see more of the restored regular weekend service, we should be able to see both Metrorail and our local bus ridership recover,” Mui said.