The D.C. region’s commuter system tottered but didn’t fall when one of its legs was kicked out on Wednesday.
How did we get through that? On a normal weekday, Metrorail carries people on more than 700,000 trips. It’s role can’t be overstated. The trains take commuters between suburb and city, and between suburb and suburb. This circulatory system operates independently of the road system to prevent the roads from clogging up.
Wednesday’s commute without Metrorail was memorable, but it could have been legendary. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld did not announce the impending shutdown until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. He said he had informed other major players in the commute, including the federal Office of Personnel Management and the D.C. mayor’s office. But the one-day closing was as much of a surprise to them as the general public.
The Washington Post’s transportation team joined other local media in pouring out information about travel alternatives, such as bus riding, ride sharing, biking and walking.
But it is difficult for people to alter their patterns with just a few hours notice. Most people settle into one mode of commuting.
A Metrorail rider does not necessarily know where the nearest Metrobus stop is or where that bus goes. Likewise, the rail rider probably will not make an easy overnight slide into the informal carpooling system known as “slugging” in the I-95 corridor.
And it is one thing to plan on joining a protective convoy for the annual Bike to Work Day in May, and quite another to go to the basement, dust off a little-used bicycle and head off on your own for work.
The short notice also limited what the transportation agencies could do. Metrobus and the suburban bus systems could not add a lot of capacity or create new routes overnight. Ride-sharing and bike-sharing services had little time to promote those options.
They did what they could. Metrobus put some more buses on the streets. The Fairfax Connector created an emergency shuttle to get commuters to and from the Pentagon transit center. Capital Bikeshare, the D.C. Circulator and the D.C. Streetcar were free for the day. The D.C. Taxi Commission eased restrictions on ride sharing for the emergency.
But none of these options could have attracted a sufficient number of commuters away from what to many was their most obvious alternative: Get in the car and drive.
When I saw traffic starting to build very early Wednesday on some key commuter routes, I feared the worst. Turned out I was seeing a behavior modification that would help limit the damage created by the loss of Metrorail.
It was the same phenomenon that researchers on the Transportation Planning Board staff say accounts for the pleasant summer lull on our local highways. The overall traffic volume does not decline so much in summer, but people become more flexible about their schedules and spread out their trips. That eases the commute for all drivers.
On Wednesday morning, traffic got very bad at spots where it normally gets bad, such as I-395 approaching the 14th Street Bridge, the Capital Beltway approaching the American Legion Bridge and the Beltway outer loop through Silver Spring.
But it was not the Carmageddon I foresaw when Wiedefeld made his announcement.
We can thank those early risers for their help, but there is another group that made a big contribution: All those people who either worked from home or took the day off.
I saw evidence of this in the Silver Spring parking garages. Silver Spring has a Red Line station, but it is also one of the region’s biggest bus hubs. So if commuters were simply shifting travel modes from rail to bus, many would still wind up parking in the garages. Yet there were plenty of empty spaces near the Silver Spring Transit Center. Regionwide, there were odd gaps in the traffic pattern that suggested many people had not left home.
I thought short notice would limit the number of telecommuters. Employee and employer need to arrange for certain home office connections. But we have made a great deal of progress in recent years. Even if they don’t do it every day, many employees are set up to telecommute.
“Telework can probably explain why things aren’t crazy,” Kanti Srikanth, the planning board’s director of transportation planning, said Wednesday morning.
Despite our region’s bad reputation for congestion, we are showing an impressive ability to adapt in a crisis: the papal visit, the winter storms and now the Metrorail shutdown.
“We weathered this as well as we can,” Srikanth said.
Let’s not get too impressed with ourselves.
“We can’t live with this sort of experience on a regular basis,” Srikanth warned.
The planning director, who thought it best to be an early commuter on VRE, channeled many of us when he described the really daunting part of Wednesday’s experience: “I had to wake up at 4 a.m.”
Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.