The Washington, D.C. Metrorail system is a massive investment in regional infrastructure. It’s construction and maintenance requires billions dollars of tax money, but few would question it’s importance to the region. It has shaped growth and kept hundreds of thousands of cars off the road daily, improving the quality of our air and city.
Although the system is famously congested along busy lines at rush hour, many stations operate well below their capacity. Of the system’s 86 stations, 32 (or 37%) had fewer than 5,000 average weekday riders (boardings) in 2007. If the entire system is subsidized by taxes, these stations are the most deeply subsidized. Given the huge expense of the station construction, maintenance, and staff, is it acceptable to let these stations remain underutilized?
The 32 stations with fewer than 5,000 daily riders in 2007 are as follows: Morgan Boulevard, Cheverly, Deanwood, Arlington Cemetery, Eisenhower Ave., Capitol Heights, Forest Glen, Congress Heights, Landover, Waterfront, Benning Road, Naylor Road, Minnesota Ave., New York Avenue, Potomac Ave., Mt Vernon Sq-UDC, Shaw-Howard Univ, Van Dorn Street, West Hyattsville, Virginia Square-GMU, Addison Road, White Flint, Clarendon, Navy Yard, East Falls Church, Braddock Road, College Park, Rockville, Twinbrook, Georgia Avenue, Wheaton, Prince George’s Plaza, Cleveland Park.
A comparison to the system’s busiest stations helps clarify the factors involved:
Clearly, the busiest stations are located in high density areas with transit oriented development, served by multiple lines, connected to other modes (like buses and trains). However density alone is not enough: both Prince George’s Plaza and Crystal City are adjacent malls, but one among the least-used and the other among the busiest.
In addition to the much-needed reforms of WMATA’s development program and always-needed reform of local government plans and processes to require good design and high density, there is much that could be done. A ridership SWAT team could analyze each station, and provide recommendations for how ridership could be increased in the short, medium, and long terms. Suggestions may range from better wayfinding, improved usability of feeder bus service, increased police patrols or lighting to address safety, reforms to encourage new TOD, better bus shelters, recruiting local employers to encourage transit use, bike racks, or a host of other changes. Perhaps as a incentive WMATA could begin charging the home jurisdictions fines if they are unable to improve ridership at their stations.
While much of the discrepancy may lie with the region’s unequal distribution of development or poor land-use planning, there are practical ways to boost ridership at every station. The region would do well to take a close look at how to get the most return from our existing investments.