SafeTrack, Metro’s year-long rebuilding plan, will inconvenience thousands of riders, with segments of some lines shut down for days at a time, late-night service suspended and extended delays. But where riders foresee pain — with memories of the one-day shutdown in March still fresh — transportation companies see opportunity.
Ride-sharing, car-sharing and taxi services and others are all gearing up and readying their pitches to riders seeking options during the looming service disruptions. For them, it is an opportunity to provide what will be a much-needed service — and grow their businesses and make money.
“We’ve got our task ahead of us,” said Ario Keshani, chief executive of the D.C. ride-sharing company Split. “I can’t think of any other situation like this where there’s been such a potentially massive disruption.”
SafeTrack, for example, includes a moratorium on extended evening hours, such as when Metro stays open after its normal closing time to accommodate late-night crowds leaving concerts or sporting events. And starting June 3, the system will shut down at midnight instead of 3 a.m. on weekends.
Uber, the ride-hailing giant with more than 30,000 active drivers in the D.C. area, is already formulating plans to meet the increased demand. Ride-hailing services are expected to shuttle a sizable chunk of the bar-hopping and nightlife crowd. Uber’s chief competitor, Lyft, also is gearing up to send drivers to service-starved areas to fill the gaps left by Metro.
“Lyft is communicating outage locations and timing to our large local driver base,” said company spokeswoman Katie Dally. “This has a dual benefit: drivers will know when and where passenger demand will be higher than normal; and passengers will have access to even more convenient, affordable rides. We’re expecting demand to increase most significantly on nights and weekends when late-night Metro service is paused and people turn to Lyft as a safe way to get home.”
The rebuilding plan calls for 15 separate work projects, or “safety surges.” The most disruptive track work will shut down portions of entire lines: From Oct. 9 to Nov. 2, the Red Line will be shuttered between NoMa-Gallaudet U and Fort Totten stations, affecting an estimated 108,000 weekday trips. Line segment shutdowns will also take place on both sides of Reagan National Airport in July. A shutdown of the Orange Line between the Eastern Market and Minnesota Avenue stations, as well as a closure of the Blue and Silver lines between the Eastern Market and Benning Road stations, is expected to impact 61,000 daily trips.
The car-sharing service, Car2Go, this week announced it had reached an agreement with local officials on changes that will allow its Arlington customers to take their cars into the District and vice versa. The policy change goes into effect May 26, in time to coincide with major Blue and Yellow line track work in Virginia.
“During times where there’s single-tracking or a line is fully closed, they’ll be able to use Car2Go to complete their trip,” said Aaron Landry, general manager for Car2Go D.C., which has 53,000 members in the region.
“Where my heart is is making sure that people have options to get from Point A to Point B, with the potential of Metrorail impacting a lot of people’s commutes.” Of the prospects for growth during the maintenance surge, he said: “Certainly, we know that it will grow.”
Zipcar, the car-sharing service with nearly 800 vehicles in the District, says it had already planned to expand service over the summer. The company says more than half of its 400 locations are “within walking distance” to Metro stations, but it is still determining specifics of how to respond to SafeTrack.
“We will add vehicles based upon demand and will be expanding our service with additional locations, vehicles and product enhancements throughout the summer months,” spokeswoman Lindsay Wester said.
The D.C. Taxicab Commission will consider offering shared rides to manage the influx of rush-hour commuters, the same measure it took during the March 16 Metro shutdown.
Commission spokesman Neville Waters said the SafeTrack announcement “has prompted DCTC to begin planning” with drivers and local leaders. “While authorizing shared riding will certainly be considered, it is unlikely that any fare adjustments will be implemented.”
And some commuters will turn to biking.
Terry Owens, spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, said it would be premature to discuss plans for Capital Bikeshare until the department has had a chance to thoroughly review Metro’s proposal. Capital Bikeshare offered free 24-hour memberships during the March shutdown — the normal cost is $8 — and saw ridership grow by 21 percent that day compared with a normal weekday.
Metro has said a fleet of 40 to 50 shuttle buses will ferry commuters between stations during the surge shutdowns, but transportation advocates say an array of commuting options will be necessary to stave off gridlock. One thing is clear: No one mode of transportation can replace the 700,000 daily trips taken on Metro — or even a portion of them.
“Telework, carpool and vanpool — it’s all of those things. It’s rail, it’s bus, it’s biking, it’s walking,” said Lois DeMeester, chief executive of Mobility Lab, the research branch of Arlington County’s commuter services program. “The takeaway is that the options have always been there. We’re hoping that more of that comes into the awareness — that people aren’t going to automatically panic — and that we give Metro time to basically heal.”
DeMeester says teleworking and carpooling will be essential if the Metro-induced headaches are to be overcome. The most recent data shows 11 percent of commuters into the District primarily carpool or vanpool to work, according to the 2013 “State of Commute” survey conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. But that does not account for ride-splitting and the carpooling services that have sprung up recently. Teleworkers made up 27 percent commuters, according to the survey.
DeMeester says the worst-case scenario would involve Metro commuters falling into the habit of driving alone to work every day. Such a scenario would create insurmountable gridlock, she says.
As they vie for new customers, a number of companies — local and national — are aiming to ward off that prospect.
“Metro moves way too many people for any one service to do anything on its own, but we believe we can be part of the solution,” said Keshani of Split, whose more than 100 drivers ferry riders on shared trips in the District for a flat fee of $2 plus an additional $1 per mile.
“We have a good enough relationship with our drivers that we can say, ‘We need help — the Orange, Blue and Silver lines are going to be closed from Eastern Market to Minnesota Avenue.’ We know based on our data that there are a lot of people moving between Capitol Hill and downtown who are going to need service.”
Uber declined to specify whether it would impose a surge-pricing cap during any of the maintenance work, as it did during the March 16 shutdown, saying it was too early to disclose any details of its plan.
“We will be ready to do our part,” general manager Zuhairah Washington said in a statement. “As we have done in the past, we’ll work with local leaders to help keep D.C. moving during this challenging time for the region.”
The March shutdown offered a glimpse of the impact the agency’s service disruptions can have on area transportation companies.
In the run-up to that morning’s commute, 70 percent more people signed up for Uber than on a comparable weekday. Three times as many people took their first trip during commuting hours, the company said, meaning they were using Uber instead of Metro to get to work. And 50 percent more of its drivers than usual were on the road, a record. Lyft said it also had 50 percent more drivers on D.C. roads.
Split had its best day ever up to that point — transporting 50 percent more riders than usual and seeing 300 percent more app downloads than a comparable day the week before. And Zipcar had its best Wednesday ever, with a nearly 50 percent spike in reservations compared with normal.
DeMeester said: “We don’t necessarily want the streets clogged with ride-hailing services — that’s not the answer either.” But, she said, there are takeaways from the Metro shutdown that can be applied to the coming surges.
“People stayed home and took either liberal leave or [paid time off] or they teleworked,” she said, adding that many biked, used vanpool services and carpooled.
She encouraged employers to adopt sensible policies that would allow employees to start work late or work from home. For the companies themselves, she said, the year-long rebuilding program will be a test.
“The onus is on all of us — it’s on all of us to help spread the word,” she said. “And the onus is on the employer to make that information available to their employees or their residential communities. And then it’s for the transportation infrastructure to step up.”