Metro is the most efficient means of commuting to and from the D.C. suburbs, but when it comes to intra-city travel — trips beginning and ending in the District — Uber is often the faster way around, according to a new analysis from the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer. And though ride-hailing is almost always more expensive than public transit, lower-cost pooling options make it nearly as affordable to hail a car in the District as to take Metro, while adding only marginally to travel times.
According to the study, which examined travel times during afternoon rush, the duration of a commute on Metro and Uber is often similar. But variables, such as Metro delays or the night and weekend service reductions so familiar to riders, put the transit system at a disadvantage, while heavier-than-usual traffic can set back ride-hailing users.
Consider this: When the wait for a Metro train is 10 minutes, Uber is the quicker option in 99 of 114 scenarios, according to the research. (During off-peak hours, Metro trains arrive about every 12 minutes; after 9:30 p.m., the frequency is reduced to every 15 to 20 minutes, making a 10-minute wait more likely.) And even during rush hour, when service is at its peak levels, trips that would normally require a transfer on Metro generally favor Uber, according to the analysis.
Still, the study shows, when train service is frequent and reliable, Metro is the fastest way around the region. In a scenario where trains arrived every three minutes — assuming a 10-minute walk to the station — Metro matched or beat out Uber in 67 of 114 trips, according to the analysis. Trains currently arrive every eight minutes across the system, with more frequent service on the Red Line from Grosvenor to Silver Spring.
“Metro is especially efficient for longer trips from downtown to the suburbs that do not require transfers,” the study says.
The comparison solely encompassed Uber because the ride-hailing company has made a trove of data available to city planners that makes its travel times easy to weigh against Metro’s. The app launched in January, Uber Movement, contains travel times and congestion data for select cities. Metro’s travel times were pulled from its online trip planner.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Metro essentially agreed with the study’s conclusions on long-distance travel but disagreed that the system falls short when it comes to trips within the District.
“While we have not analyzed the report or its assumptions, we agree that Metrorail is often faster and more cost effective than other options,” Metro spokesman Richard L. Jordan said. “In fact, Metrorail’s cost per mile is less than Uber or taxi services, regardless of the trip distance, making it an excellent value.”
In a statement, an Uber spokesman said the ride-hailing service doesn’t see Metro as a competitor.
“Uber has long believed that the Metro is, and will continue to be, the backbone of the region’s transportation system,” the spokesman said. “We are proud to provide first- [and] last-mile options that extend the reach of the public transportation infrastructure hundreds of thousands of Metro commuters rely on every day.”
Researchers said they chose the 114 routes in the analysis because they were common — with a transfer-free trips from Gallery Place or Metro Center to nearly every station in the system. Routes also included trips to common job centers — such as Foggy Bottom and Navy Yard — nightlife hubs such as Shaw, or residential and commercial areas like Columbia Heights. The researchers admit they “purposefully included some trips” where they thought Uber would beat Metro to fully demonstrate the scale of differences in travel times.
Of course, there’s often a simple way to avoid a time-consuming transfer on Metrorail: the bus. Jordan said it was “surprising” that the study didn’t “fully consider” the vast Metrobus network, as buses carry more riders than the rail system in the District — at a cost of $2 per trip.
In fact, the study’s authors did acknowledge that many of the points entailing longer commutes on Metrorail were easily connected by Metrobus.
“With Metro’s spoke-and-hub configuration, it’s not surprising that trips requiring a transfer that have origins and destinations relatively close to each other are quicker in an Uber than on Metro,” the analysis said, noting how the X2 bus, for example, links Union Station and Minnesota Avenue, and the H4 bus connects Columbia Heights and Cleveland Park. “Some folks have their own work-arounds, and might bike between these locations. All of this is to say that even if Uber is faster than Metro for trips with a transfer, there are other modes of transit a person can use to make this sort of trip.”
As the authors point out, nights and weekends are likely when transit users in the District would find ride-hailing more appealing. A trip between two residential and entertainment hubs is an example. When the wait for a train is 10 minutes, the research says, the Metro trip from Columbia Heights to Eastern Market takes 47 minutes. The Uber trip clocks in at 38 minutes— nine minutes faster. If the wait for a train had only been three minutes, the authors point out, Metro would have been the faster option.
Cost is another consideration. Saving nine minutes by using Uber will cost a rider, or group of riders, an extra $10 total. But if the customer is cost-conscious, they might opt for UberPOOL, which would still take them to Eastern Market faster — in 43 minutes — for a dollar more. The study assumes an extra five minutes for UberPOOL, consistent with Uber’s predictions.
For 74 of 114 trips, the analysis concludes, Uber costs no greater than $5 more than what a rider would pay for the same Metro trip. But $5 can be a lofty sum for riders on a system where the max fare is $6.
And the current costs aren’t guaranteed.
“It is unclear how long Uber prices will remain this low,” the analysis notes. “Several news outlets have reported that Uber subsidizes its rides with money from investors, meaning current fares might not reflect the full cost of a ride.”
No matter how many seats are filled in an Uber or Lyft, one thing that’s clear is that ride-hailing isn’t a feasible replacement for mass transit — as the companies themselves admit. While an Uber ride might be faster in some cases, a single Metro train can whisk more than 1,000 people from the District to the Maryland or Virginia suburbs in a matter of minutes. To attempt the same with Uber or Lyft would be a guaranteed recipe for Gridlock.
In a statement, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt said the study underscored the importance of finding a long-term funding solution for Metro, to ensure the system is safe and reliable.
“When Metro is reliable it’s the most cost effective option for riders and why it is so important the region come together on a long term funding solution,” his office said in a statement.
This post has been updated.