A partial shutdown of Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines from 7 a.m. Saturday through closing Sunday caught some travelers arriving at Reagan National Airport by surprise. The service disruption also created miles-long traffic jams and a boom in business for ride-hail services.
Metro had shut down National Airport and Crystal City stations for radio and cellphone cable upgrades between Braddock Road and Pentagon City. Riders quickly realized that meant a painful shuttle commute linking them to stations to the north and south, and back to the train system. And long lines. But some had no other choice.
On ride-hailing platforms, prices surged, with too few drivers to accommodate the extra passengers. One Sunday evening Lyft ride, from the airport to the Bloomingdale area of the District, was quoted at more than $43 (a pooled ride would have been just over $26). That compared to a $3 shared ride from downtown to the newly opened Wharf.
Between them, it was likely the ride-hailing companies carried out thousands more trips than on a normal Sunday. And that was just at the airport — typically among the busiest ride-hailing hubs in a given city.
Uber saw a more than 75 percent increase in demand from early afternoon Sunday to early Monday morning — when compared to the week before — with the height of the rush coming around dinnertime Sunday, the company reported. Lyft did not provide specific data, but a spokeswoman said the company experienced “an increase in ride requests” that was likely responsible for the surge in prices.
(It’s not a perfect comparison. The previous Sunday, Oct. 9, was quieter than usual, falling during Columbus Day weekend.)
“Because of the increase in ride requests, there were more people requesting Lyft rides than there were drivers to provide them,” Lyft spokeswoman Campbell Matthews said. “This heightened demand caused some areas to experience prime-time pricing, which serves to incentivize drivers to head to areas with increased demand.”
Meanwhile — and perhaps expectedly given the shift from transit to roads — traffic swelled.
Sunday evening, severe traffic congestion was reported at National, which was said to be at least partially due to the closing of the Metro station. A photograph from the airport showed bumper-to-bumper traffic clogging five lanes.
The airports authority said the congestion was “likely due to more cars on road” from the station closure.
A glimpse at Metro’s data shed further light on the source of the congestion, and the shift to alternatives such as Uber and Lyft.
Metro ridership at National on Sunday, via replacement shuttles, was down nearly 40 percent compared to the week before. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said there were 1,589 shuttle boardings from 4 p.m. through closing Sunday, compared to 2,543 rail system entries during the same period Oct. 9.
Overall, ridership was down 25 to 30 percent because of the shutdown, “consistent with past shutdowns,” Stessel said. While Sunday entries in the shutdown zone average about 17,080, only 11,942 shuttle boardings were recorded last Sunday, Stessel said. The numbers were similar on Saturday. On normal Saturdays, there are about 20,170 rail trips in the shutdown area south of Pentagon City, Stessel said. Last weekend, when shuttles replaced trains, 5,204 fewer trips were taken, he said.
“Specifically, shuttle bus usage was 26 percent lower than the six-week average for Saturday, and 30 percent lower than the six-week average for Sunday,” Stessel said.
Some wondered why Metro couldn’t just single-track in the work zone, instead of halting trains altogether.
Others wondered why the work wasn’t done when the station was shut down during SafeTrack.
Metro said the cellular and radio upgrades being performed required both tracks to be out of service, as crews installed cable and communication equipment along tunnel walls between Pentagon City and National, and in a tunnel outside Braddock Road.
“Anticipating a question, this is work that could not be done during SafeTrack because the radio project uses specialized vehicles to do the installation, which could not operate while SafeTrack rail renewal was underway,” Stessel said.
Crews also used the shutdown to perform platform rehabilitation at National, along with signal and switch projects in the work zone, Metro said.