While Metro began seeing gains early last year, an entire year’s worth of results boosts the agency’s confidence that it is experiencing steady and stable growth that officials believe has carried over into this year.
The growth is also not limited to Metro.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, transit ridership across the nation increased by more than 2 percent in the third quarter of last year, including a 5 percent increase in heavy rail, or subway-style transit.
Two major transit systems showing significant growth? New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which reported a 7.6 percent increase in riders compared to the second quarter, and Metro, which reported a 7.2 percent increase.
The transit association said it marked the first consecutive quarters with ridership increases since 2014. Technological improvements that have made transit use simpler are one reason more people are taking public transportation, the association said. This year, Metro has announced that its customers will soon be able to use their cellphones as fare cards, while the transit authority also plans to roll out an app to make reloading travel funds easier.
Metro began losing passengers in 2011, when average daily ridership stood at 737,000, according to Metro records. In 2012, the average number of daily riders fell to 721,000 and kept declining until it reached 606,000 in 2018. The losses are widely attributed to consistent delays, single-tracking, frequent fires and other safety violations due to a lack of adequate maintenance and upkeep for much of the past decade, Metro officials have acknowledged.
The problems reached a climax in 2015, when an electrical fire outside the L’Enfant Plaza station led to the death of a passenger from smoke inhalation. Years of federal oversight, the curtailing of service hours to give maintenance workers more off hours to work and a multimillion-dollar maintenance blitz known as SafeTrack followed.
Before embarrassing yourself hitting "publish" on that "#wmata's ridership turnaround shows it's heading in the right direction" article, please consider context:— 20 8-car trains per hour, 19 hours/day, every day (@HeadwaysMatter) January 15, 2020
Ridership is *lower* than it was in 2005, even though 25% more people live in DC
That's a failure -- not a success pic.twitter.com/cLrk1MziDS
The result of a safety-first focus, according to Metro, is trains arriving on time at a rate of nearly 90 percent on weekdays, the highest level in 10 years. More than 500 of the system’s oldest cars have been replaced by 7000-series trains, cutting the average age of Metro’s fleet from about 25 years old in 2015 to under 13 years, Metro said.
Other reasons the transit authority cites for the uptick: extensions of trips on the Yellow and Red lines, a better fare card system offering more options and discounts, and Metro’s Rush Hour Promise, a money-back guarantee that credits riders whenever a rush-hour trip is delayed more than 10 minutes.
“We know that our customers have lots of travel options these days, and that we have to earn their patronage every day through convenient, affordable, reliable service,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a statement. “We are excited to continue this trend and welcome more riders to Metro, as we work even harder to become the region’s transportation provider of choice.”
Metro officials said average Saturday ridership increased 9.4 percent to 264,000 trips, while average Sunday ridership increased 6.5 percent to 168,000 trips. The overall gains came even with a summer-long closure of six stations south of Reagan National Airport for station work and a federal government shutdown, which Metro said cost the rail line an estimated 100,000 trips per weekday. The Washington Nationals’ postseason run to a World Series victory also helped boost ridership. Metro said its best month was October, with weekday ridership reaching more than 683,000.
"Metrorail's average weekday ridership now stands at 626,000."— James Pizzurro (@jamespizzurro) January 15, 2020
This is absolutely worth celebrating given the ridership declines of the last decade, but we have a long way to go; average weekday ridership was 675k as recently as 2015, before SafeTrack. #wmata https://t.co/M7GCwxCocm
The day with the most riders was April 3, Metro said, when 756,500 riders used the subway — on a day when the Nationals played a home game and at a time when the cherry blossoms were at their tourist-luring peak.
The D.C. metro area’s rapid growth has also contributed to Metrorail’s passenger growth. The stations that saw the highest customer growth were two surrounded by new homes: McLean, which saw a nearly 30 percent surge of riders year over year, and Greensboro, which saw ridership increase by 22 percent, Metro said.
The end-of-year statistics, however, were not all good for Metro. Metrobus ridership continues a steep fall, down 3.5 percent last year. Metro blames the region’s stifling traffic for losses. Customers in Metro’s own surveys have said service delays are among the top reasons people have stopped using Metrobus, and the transit authority is looking to reconfigure routes while also working with area transportation officials to explore how buses could be moved through expressway and highway traffic more quickly.