Every few weeks or so for the next 10 months, one of the biggest transit systems in the United States is going to deliberately cripple itself and make it more difficult for people to get to work.
Commuters in the nation’s capital aren’t sure how they’re going to get through these encounters with Metrorail’s accelerated maintenance program, and neither are the people who want to help them plan their trips.
They know enough, however, to warn the commuters that they’re in for trouble. “There really is no way to say this won’t be a problem,” said Jack Requa, a senior manager with Metro.
Transportation planners, travel experts and everyday commuters now know Requa was right. Some general lessons have become apparent since the first of 15 special maintenance programs was launched June 3.
Among those lessons: The Washington region doesn’t have enough excess capacity — either in equipment, such as spare buses, or in highway pavement — to compensate for losing portions of the Metrorail. Much of the official effort to compensate for the loss will involve telling commuters what travel options already exist, including more flexible work schedules, carpools, vanpools, commuter rail, biking and — above all — teleworking.
Transit users who choose to drive during the disruptions will learn to their dismay that there are no undiscovered shortcuts during rush hours.
The general lessons about the travel network’s limitations and the commuters’ options can be applied to the remaining 14 special maintenance projects in Metro’s SafeTrack Plan. But the scattering of the projects across the 117-mile rail system through next winter means that some lessons will need to be learned quickly, as the individual projects unfold.
At one time or another, SafeTrack disruptions will be experienced by hundreds of thousands of commuters — just not in the same way each time. The first effort, in which trains continuously shared a track between East Falls Church and Ballston for 13 days, has disrupted at least 73,000 trips each weekday, by Metrorail’s estimate. Thousands more bus commuters have been delayed, along with the drivers caught in extra slow traffic in Northern Virginia.
We haven’t seen anything yet.
Metro estimates that work on a section of the Red Line in October will affect 108,000 daily trips. That will be one of five projects in which sections of lines are temporarily closed. In the other 10 projects, trains will share tracks for the duration of the rebuilding. The shortest projects are scheduled to last seven days. The longest, an Orange Line project in September and October, is scheduled to last 42 days.
Metro will face different challenges for the second project, scheduled to begin Saturday with a 16-day shutdown of the Orange and Silver lines between Eastern Market and the Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road stations. During that time, the Blue Line will operate only between Franconia-Springfield and Arlington Cemetery.
Metro used a 40-bus task force to help get commuters around the single-tracking zone for the first project. This reserve fleet will play a more crucial role during the upcoming project, because many commuters will rely on the free shuttles to bridge the transit gap between stations.
This will highlight the general lessons about the lack of extra capacity in the region’s transportation system. One six-car Metrorail train at rush hour equals the capacity of 20 buses. There aren’t enough extra Metrobuses to avoid crowding for travelers in the disrupted segment of this heavily traveled area near the Anacostia River.
Even when suburban bus systems step in to supplement service, as the Fairfax Connector has done for several weeks and as Montgomery County’s Ride On will do in August during the first of the Red Line disruptions, the total number of extra buses is puny compared with the need.
In this lopsided struggle, the region does have one crucial resource: the commuters.
Alan E. Pisarski, a writer and consultant on transportation policy and traveler behavior who lives in Northern Virginia, has a lot of faith in the breed: “Americanus commutandis is a resilient creature — flexible, but grumpy; resourceful, but grumpy.”
When challenged by a disruption in their travel pattern, many commuters show their flexibility. “Instead of going east, you go west to the other line,” Pisarski said. “You take a day off. You telecommute. There’s a lot of flex we discover when we see a threat like this.”
I saw some of the smarts and flexibility he spoke about on display June 6, when the disruption was new to commuters. Shortly after 7 a.m., a dozen travelers gathered at a bus shelter in the Reston North Park & Ride lot, a few minutes’ walk from the Silver Line station at Wiehle Avenue.
Many had done their homework about SafeTrack’s impact, and they were prepared to try something new: the Fairfax Connector’s 599 express bus from Reston to the Pentagon transit center.
For one rider, the morning’s commute would involve bus-to-bus transfers, a Metrorail trip with a train transfer and then another bus ride in Greenbelt.
The commuters did need some help to help themselves. They needed the express bus service to exist, and they needed information about how to use it.
That’s where Nicholas Perfili came in. Perfili, who manages the Fairfax Connector bus system, knew a disruptive new maintenance program would be coming, even before Metro finalized the details of SafeTrack last month.
Back in March, when Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld announced an emergency one-day shutdown of Metrorail for safety maintenance, Perfili oversaw the quick addition of several Fairfax Connector express bus routes to get commuters from Reston and Vienna to the Pentagon transit center, where they could transfer to other bus services and complete their trips.
On March 16, he went to the Pentagon transit hub to see how it worked and concluded it did well enough to replicate when something bigger came along, which it did. The bus the commuters boarded at Reston North on June 6 was one of five extra trips Fairfax County added to the normal six-trip morning service on Route 599 during the maintenance project. Although this was small compared with the size of the disruption, it did have some characteristics that commuters will see replicated within Fairfax and elsewhere over SafeTrack’s 10 months.
“We can’t put together anything that’s too complicated,” Perfili said. Commuters can do their normal trips in their sleep, he said. But when they have to switch routes or travel methods, they may be no better off than tourists.
The routes also have to be easy for the bus drivers to understand, because they don’t get much chance to practice them.
Then, of course, the plan has to be simple because there aren’t that many buses to deploy. The Reston-Pentagon route used the Dulles Access Highway and Interstate 66, minimizing the likelihood that the express buses would get stuck in local traffic before they could loop back to start another trip.
These are the sort of strategy lessons that will probably help as the region moves through the 15 transit disruptions. Meanwhile, groups such as Commuter Connections (commuterconnections.org) that have spent decades helping commuters discover their travel alternatives are eager to help reprogram disrupted trips.
A national vanpool service provider called vRide (vride.com) is offering a special promotion timed to the start of SafeTrack. The first 10 groups of Washington-area commuters that sign up in June to form a vanpool through the service will get one month free.
But these services are in an odd place. Their goal has long been to help drivers leave their cars behind for the commute. Now Metro, the region’s main provider of get-out-of-the-car services, is telling the already converted that they will have a bad experience if they all keep taking Metro.
The new challenge is to get these people from one form of group commute to another, at least temporarily. “People are doing what we want them to do — that’s taking transit,” said Tom Biesiadny, director of Fairfax County’s Transportation Department. “We want to retain them.”
The last thing any of the transportation planners will urge is that these commuters attempt a solo drive to work. Some additional commuters are going it alone in traffic, and the extra congestion has been highly noticeable in Northern Virginia’s close-in suburbs and downtown Washington.
Among all the alternatives that commuters could try, the most helpful one for the travel network would be teleworking. A study by the region’s Transportation Planning Board suggests that about 70 percent of Metrorail commuters either do telecommute at least occasionally or know that they have the resources and permission to do so if they choose. That’s a powerful force for congestion-busting when unleashed, as it was during the Pope’s visit in September and the one-day Metrorail shutdown in March.
The flexibility displayed by commuters when they meet obstacles is among the reasons that people who study local transportation don’t see SafeTrack as a formula for regional gridlock. But they, like the transportation system’s managers, don’t know what’s going to happen in particular corridors as the surge scenarios unfold.
For the researchers, that’s a wonderful opportunity.
“We want to see how these events impact the overall system, how people’s transportation mode choices change,” said JJ Biel-Goebel, program manager with the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory. “We supply data across the country. Our customers are extremely interested in being able to dive into the data.”
Prepare to donate your commute to science.