TO UNDERSTAND the extent to which passengers are deserting Metrorail, thereby depriving it of revenue and raising doubts about the system’s financial viability, it is useful to compare ridership projections with reality.
As recently as three or four years ago, the projections were rosy. Today, as passengers are increasingly turned off by delays, disruptions and disasters, Metro appears to lack a strategy for recovery. Faced with a daily shortfall of tens of thousands of paying customers, Metro seems complacent, or possibly paralyzed.
After many years of growing demand, average weekday ridership has fallen by nearly 6 percent since 2010 (despite a small uptick last year). Sanguine Metro officials, mindful that forecasts of mass transit’s decline and death are cyclical, say the recent decline represents a blip and that long-term demand for subway transit will grow along with the region’s population. They note that stations and trains in the system’s urban core remain busy and crowded.
Still, the recent numbers illustrate the transit system’s dilemma; if they represent a blip, it is a big one. In the fiscal year that ended in June, Metro averaged about 710,000 weekday riders — drastically short of projections for 900,000, set in 1999, and also short of the agency’s updated forecast of more than 800,000, made in 2008.
While the “Momentum” report proclaimed that “static or declining ridership is not likely to be in the region’s future,” static or declining ridership now seems all too possible. For its part, Metro says it is waiting on the development of complex new models of regional demand before it can devise — and, most likely, downgrade — updated ridership projections.
There are multiple reasons for the dip in subway ridership. The rise of telecommuting and alternative work schedules, along with federal job cuts, has pared demand. Falling gas prices have tempted some commuters back to their cars. Uber, Lyft and bike-sharing, particularly in the District, provide alternatives.
Yet as Metro acknowledged last week, word of its shoddy and unreliable service — busted escalators, chilling accidents and marathon commutes arising from quotidian mishaps and breakdowns — is also turning away passengers. Of all the “blips,” that may be the hardest one to shrug off, because it is the toughest to fix.
It is modestly good news that Metro finally recognizes that poor service is driving away passengers; the agency is now surveying riders (and, we assume, ex-riders) to discover how big a role it has played.
The problem is that Metro’s board cannot agree on a game plan, or even leadership qualifications for a new general manager, to treat what ails its rail service. One thing is not in doubt: The cost will be colossal, measured in billions of dollars. And it is anyone’s guess where those funds would come from in an environment where passengers, fed up with plummeting reliability, are loath to pay higher fares, and strapped regional funding partners are equally disinclined to increase their subsidies.