Metro’s ridership keeps falling, and the system’s leaders are at a loss for how to fix it.
Once comfortably the nation’s second-busiest subway, Metro has lost 125,000 average daily trips over the past decade, plunging it into a quarterly battle with the Chicago Transit Authority for the distinction.
But as causes of the trend become increasingly clear, the transit agency’s leaders are no more certain of how to address the decline. In conversations with all eight Metro board members and the agency’s chief executive over the past week, none was willing to commit to pushing for increased service, for example — despite a consultant’s conclusion that service was the key factor in riders’ decisions to abandon the system.
Another recent analysis found the ridership decreases were most pronounced among riders ages 18 to 29, who are fleeing the system at nearly double the rate of other age groups — and riding 40 percent less on weekends amid a sea of alternatives, according to technology firm Teralytics. Suggestions for dealing with the trend include a subsidy war with ride-hailing services, among Metro’s biggest competition; limiting service-disrupting track work on weekends; and partnering with tech-based alternatives to attract that segment of the market.
But with budget discussions soon to get underway, there is a recognition of a problem without an obvious solution among Metro leadership.
“We’re looking for a silver bullet that doesn’t exist,” Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said. “The silver bullet would be if I had the 1986 system, and it was 10 years old and everything was working great and that’s when our ridership was going up, and up, and up.”
More than a year after Metro cut late-night service and reduced the frequency of trains on five of six lines amid chronic safety and reliability problems, ridership has plunged to 2001 levels. Now that the agency has secured $500 million a year in dedicated funding for capital needs, riders and their advocates say it’s time to shift the focus to restoring some of that service to win back customers.
Service is especially important heading into next year because fare increases are on the table for the coming budget. It will be difficult to ask riders to pay more without giving them something in return.
So, we asked each Metro board member a simple question: Should Metro run more trains?
Some board members pointed to a coming discussion about restoring late-night service — without taking a position; others simply said the agency needs to focus on existing service. Not a single board member would commit to supporting a service increase in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“I think we have to explore all of our options,” said board member Corbett A. Price, who represents the District. “We’re focused on service, efficiency, reliability and looking at ways to improve and increase ridership.”
Evans said the problem is reliability, not too few trains.
“We’re going to make it more reliable and people are going to come back to the system. But is it going to happen overnight if I change the headways?” Evans asked. “No, it’s not going to happen.”
Metro has reduced rush-hour service by 25 percent on five of six lines — from every six minutes to every eight minutes across most of the system. Headways midday, evenings and daytime Saturdays are around 12 minutes, with 15-minute daytime waits on Sundays. At night, waits can stretch 20 minutes or longer.
In July 2017, the agency cut its operating hours by eight hours per week, closing at 11:30 p.m. weekdays and 1 a.m. weekends. The biggest service change came on Sundays, when the system is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., compared with 7 a.m. to 12 a.m. under the previous schedule.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said at a news conference that the problem was largely out of his hands. Indeed, transit ridership is down in 31 of 35 major cities, according to transit advocacy group TransitCenter, a trend likely driven by the maintenance needs of aging urban rail systems. In addition, riders have more alternatives, post-recession fuel prices are lower and there is increased teleworking. But Metro’s ridership declines since 2015, exacerbated by its SafeTrack maintenance program, have surpassed 10 percent.
“At the end of the day, there are certain things in the market that you cannot control, in terms of ridership,” Wiedefeld said. “Ridership clearly is important, but we also have to recognize that what we should be judged on, first and foremost, is how we’re performing in what we do every day. I can’t control the [ride-hailing companies], I can’t control the price of gas, I can’t control that.”
Wiedefeld’s observations came as analysts, riders and policy advocates concluded that one key cause of the agency’s declining ridership is within its control: service. The consultant’s study, part of a $460,000 effort to develop a realistic ridership modeling tool, found the factors “best correlated” to ridership changes were related to service, Metro said.
“Not surprisingly, when the number of trains serving a station increases, ridership increases; and when the percentage of trips delayed increases, ridership decreases,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said last month.
Metro says two-thirds of its ridership losses since 2016 have occurred during off-peak periods, when the time between trains can be anywhere from 12 minutes to 20 minutes — longer when there are rebuilding projects underway. That's where Metro’s energy should be focused, said riders and advocates from a range of backgrounds.
“The prospect of waiting in one of those stations for 20 minutes or more for a train is a real turnoff for many people,” said Graham Jenkins, a transit advocate who tweets under the handle @LowHeadways. “Two or three weekends in a row that happens to you, you’re not just going to bother trying anymore.”
Board member Christian Dorsey agreed that attention should be focused on the off-peak hours.
“If Metro is really going to get into the business of increasing ridership overall, I think it’s got to be in capturing people who are making those weekend and leisure trips on other modes,” said Dorsey, who represents Virginia. “It could mean more service generally, it could be less disruption in service through closings and maintenance activities.”
But what exactly what should be done?
Board member Michael Goldman prefers a wait-and-see approach, saying Metro should monitor the effects of the elimination of what is known as the Grosvenor turnback; the change will double the number of rush-hour Red Line trains at Shady Grove. Board member Clarence C. Crawford, who along with Goldman represents Maryland, agreed.
“Does more service result in more passengers coming back?” Goldman asked. “We’re going to get a good test of that starting in December with the end of the Grosvenor turnback. I think we’ll have an interesting pilot program to really see.”
Katherine Kortum, chair of the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council — a rider advocacy group the board plans to eliminate in October — said the “wait and see” approach is risky in an environment where riders are flocking to alternatives.
“The lack of service that’s driving people away occurs late at night and on the weekends,” she said. “And even if they keep the existing hours, were I Paul Wiedefeld or the board, that would be where I start.”
Jim Corcoran, chairman of the board’s finance committee, said every option is on the table as the board looks toward the fiscal 2020 budget. Metro could reexamine its decision to cut late-night service, for example, since it was “because there was a limited time that we agreed to curtail late-night service for.”
“What I can assure you is that we are looking at them and we are talking about them,” said Corcoran, who represents Virginia.
Perhaps the most outside-the-box thinking came from board member David Horner, who suggested competing directly with the ride-hailing companies — employing some of the same strategies that have fueled their explosive growth. To compete, Metro might need more operating funding from local jurisdictions to support more service.
“To the extent that ride-hailing companies are a driver of declines in Metro ridership, the region must ask itself how Metro should respond to ride-hailing companies — for example, ‘should the member jurisdictions increase subsidy to service in order to improve the competitiveness?’ ” said Horner, who represents the federal government. “I expect the last thing ride-hailing companies want is to engage in a subsidy shootout with a competitor whose members have the power to tax.”
Steve McMillin, the other federal appointee to the board, took a more measured view, saying service increases were a question up to the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“If the local jurisdictions are prepared to pay that, fine, assuming they understand it can’t come at the expense of safety, and that they’re on the hook for ballooning retirement expenses as well,” he said.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth, said that while the region rallied around Metro’s SafeTrack program and understood the need for drastic measures, such as a preventive maintenance program, the time has come for Metro to restore some service — this coming year.
“There appears to be a very clear tie to less frequent service,” Schwartz said of the ridership problems. “Therefore, if I were on the board I would direct analysis of this, and ‘what would it take to restore more frequent service?’ and then to make the case to the localities and the states.”
Martine Powers contributed to this report.