For 15 years, more and more people rode Metro. Ridership increased an average of 3 percent annually, going from 150 million trips in 1996 to almost 225 million trips in 2009, according to the agency.
Growth came not only from the job gains Washington enjoyed during that period but rapid development near stations along the Green Line in the District, the Orange Line in Arlington and the Red Line in Montgomery County, among other places.
The growth came to a halt during the recession, but many assumed that it would restart once the economy recovered.
Such declines concern Metro as it pushes for funding for its long-term improvements. What’s causing ridership to wane?
The agency’s staff raised a bathtub full of possible concerns for the drop-off in a recent report to the board, among them cuts to federal jobs, slow economic growth, a possible rise in teleworking, increased alternative work schedules, more bike commuters and the increased fares and track work that have driven some longtime Metro riders up the wall and maybe back into their cars.
In the report, Metro staff pointed out that recent surveys of federal workers found that more than 10 percent telecommute at least once a week. “Changing commute patterns, particularly in the form of telework and alternative work schedules, are an area of continuing investigation for Metro,” the staff wrote.
Declining ridership is also troubling for the real estate firms and developers that build and own offices near the stations, and of particular concern is a drop in the number of commuters who are taking Metro downtown in the morning.
The real estate services firm JLL looked at the number of morning passenger arrivals (pre-9 a.m.) at the system’s busiest stations, most of which are in or around downtown D.C. All but two of the stations saw declines in 2014 and the drop in Foggy Bottom, of 13.6 percent, was dramatic.
Total arrivals at downtown stations were still up slightly, at 1.7 percent, but JLL’s Brian Sullivan said that from a real estate perspective there is concern that teleworking policies — which have been talked about for a decade or more — are finally taking hold.
Walking, biking or driving to work is one thing, as those employees still need offices. But if you own an office building, employees not coming to work at all is quite another because their employers may decide they don’t need to lease as much space. Sullivan said it’s possible the drop-off “signals that the federal telecommute policies are taking hold, as fewer federal employees take Metro to work on a daily basis.”
“Real estate east of 15th Street caters more to supporting federal offices and we’ve been seeing steady declines in federal employment, so that would explain some of the changes,” Sullivan said.
Richard Barkham, chief global economist at the real estate services firm CBRE, said he sees a societal shift but toward the tech industry, not toward teleworking.
Workers at technology companies are pushing the growth in residential density that cities such as Washington have experienced in recent years, he said. More of them are walking or biking to work and fewer are clocking in from 9 to 5 at the office the way previous generations did.
“The big story in U.S. cities is densification,” Barkham said. “People are moving downtown because it’s very fashionable and very popular. I don’t think it’s threatening suburban living at the moment but it’s what young workers want to do.”
“I don’t think you should overstate teleworking,” he added. “People have talked about this for more than 15 years. When I was doing my PhD in the early ’80s … we were talking about it then. While people are more location-flexible, the more creative industries actually need more face-to-face time.”
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