The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. region views Metro positively despite recent struggles, poll shows

The results indicate that despite Metro’s efforts to lure customers back, much is outside the agency’s control as it tries to bridge a budget gap

A passenger enters a train car at the recently opened Ashburn station along the Silver Line. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Metro has moved over the past two years to win back customers lost during the pandemic while expanding service, discounting rides and focusing on customers, believing that improved service would lead to more riders.

But a Washington Post-Schar School poll signals the strategy may not result in significant ridership gains, creating another challenge for Metro as it tries to reinvent itself in an era of increased telework. Commuters have abandoned the system not because they dislike Metro, the survey suggests, but because they are working from home more frequently.

The survey of a random sample of more than 1,600 D.C., suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia residents shows that despite Metro’s high-profile struggles — including incidents of crime, lengthy train waits and a National Transportation Safety Board probe — 3 in 4 riders rate Metrorail “excellent” or “good.” Even as opinions of the nation’s third-largest transit system have changed little since before the pandemic, passenger counts are stuck at about half of previous levels.

The results indicate that despite Metro’s efforts to lure customers back, much is outside the transit agency’s control as it tries to bridge a growing budget gap.

Metro isn’t alone in its struggles. Across the country, transit agencies are finding it difficult to fill seats after the health crisis ushered in the widespread adoption of telework that has dramatically slashed office commuting. In Washington, stifling traffic, 12-minute train waits or scheduled buses that never arrive aren’t always the main considerations when deciding whether to stay home, drive or take Metro to work.

“I think it’s based on your home life, your home responsibilities — if you have a family, whether you need to stay home with a kid or you need a break from your kids to maintain a work-life balance,” said Katie Krueger, a survey respondent who lives in Mount Rainier. “I think Metro has really nothing to do with it.”

Across the region, 12 percent of riders say Metro is “excellent,” while 62 percent call its services “good.” The numbers are nearly identical to those in 2019. The ratings are up from a low five years ago, when less than half of riders viewed the transit agency positively.

Tensions simmer as Metro ridership grows during train shortage

The Post-Schar School poll finds more than 7 in 10 Metro riders rate the system highest for safety of train operations, comfort and going places they want to go. About two-thirds give positive marks for reliability and being a good value, and as many say this about convenience to their home. Smaller majorities rate Metro positively for safety from crime (58 percent) and convenience to their work (57 percent).

Yet three-quarters of Washington-area residents report riding Metro “rarely” or “never.” Another 14 percent ride it “sometimes,” while just 11 percent ride Metro “very often” or “fairly often,” down from 21 percent a decade ago.

Drops in Metro ridership are concentrated among younger adults and residents of the District, according to the poll. The percentage of adults under 30 saying they ride Metro often has dropped from 33 percent in 2013 to 13 percent this past February, while ridership among D.C. residents dropped from 41 percent to 26 percent over the same period.

New Silver Line stations a tiny part of Metro trips. Leaders cite growth prospects.

Krueger, who has lived in Mount Rainier for 14 years, took Metro to work five days a week before the pandemic. Now, she goes to the office about two days a week, usually driving the car she bought during the pandemic.

“It was just easier to drive,” Krueger said.

Survey results show safety from crime is the biggest concern about the Metro system. Even so, a majority of riders say public safety is “excellent” or “good.”

Erinn Tucker-Oluwole, a Georgetown University professor who teaches hospitality and tourism, said perceptions of crime are also a matter of perspective. She said she feels less safe walking to stations than she does inside them, where officers are often stationed.

How long a person has lived in the region could also be a factor in whether residents view Metro favorably, Tucker-Oluwole said.

“People who have been here a long time or have some sort of connection to this area, they remember when the Metro system was literally the premier model of how public transportation should work,” she said. “So for many people that have experienced that model then and now see it, I can see that there could be a lowering [of opinion].”

Tucker-Oluwole rode Metro five times a week before the pandemic, but now said she spends those days working from home. She mostly drives when she needs to go somewhere. Like Krueger, she bought a car during the pandemic, even though she said she views Metro favorably.

In the survey, 79 percent of riders called the safety of train operations “excellent” or “good.” Comfort also rated highly with 77 percent of riders rating it positively. Two-thirds of people who have ridden Metro view it as a good value and reliable, down from 73 percent a decade ago.

About 6 in 10 riders who commute to work rate Metro positively for convenience to their workplaces, a rating that’s higher among D.C. residents than those who live in the suburbs. That’s up overall from a decade ago, when half of commuters said Metro was convenient to their job.

John Sikking is not among them. A management consultant who helps the federal government purchase information technology services, Sikking lives in Bethesda, works mostly out of his house and drives to meet clients.

He rated Metro “not so good” and is among the 54 percent of people in Montgomery County who rarely ride on the rail system.

“I have to walk the mile to get to the Metro. I get in the Metro, I’m on the Red Line, I have to go all the way at Metro Center to change [trains] to get somewhere else,” Sikking said. “It takes forever to get there.”

The survey, as well as interviews with former Metro commuters who now telework, demonstrate the difficulty Metro has in trying to persuade people to either resume transit or forgo their cars.

Metro outlines plan to boost service levels beginning in February

Riders who use Metro sparingly said the agency should market its services as a more convenient option to get to sporting events or concerts without the hassles of paid parking, no-parking zones, speed cameras and long lines to get out of parking lots after events. Metro should make suburban station parking lots free, some said, and at least persuade drivers to hop on Metro for part of the journey.

Seeing the trends of the pandemic, Metro began pivoting services away from standard commuters in 2021 to broaden its reach. Transit leaders have made weekend and weeknight rail trips after 9:30 p.m. a flat $2 fare. The agency eliminated a bus-to-rail transfer fee, and is considering cutting fares in half starting this summer for lower-income residents who meet federal food assistance eligibility requirements.

Trains run more frequently outside peak periods to match new ridership trends, while bus routes have expanded into neighborhoods that had limited access. Metro has also leased much of its undeveloped and unused land to developers building offices, stores, apartments and condominiums around stations — centers that could generate future riders.

“As the tax base grows and more people live and work around the station, that will eventually lead to better ridership — in fact better economics for the whole region, which feeds back into Metro long-term,” Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said of one such project this month.

Clarke often says people value good experiences during Metro rides, and the survey indicates Metro leaves positive impressions even among those who rarely ride.

Laurie Olivieri, lives in Middleburg, Va., works in Manassas and has no access to Metro — or need for it.

“I can’t imagine more than once a year doing an activity that involves going downtown,” she said. “My life is out here.”

But she rated Metro “excellent” because she said her few experiences on Metro were memorable. About eight years ago, she remembers riding back to Northern Virginia after going to D.C. for Halloween.

“Everyone was in little costumes, and people were happy,” she said.

The poll was conducted by The Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government between Feb. 17 and 27 among a random sample of 1,668 Washington-area residents reached on cellphones and landlines. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.