Metro’s Underperforming Stations

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.

Metro's Least-Used Stations

A comparison to the system’s busiest stations helps clarify the factors involved:

Metro's Busiest Stations

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.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I’ve always thought that one of the best ideas is getting rid of the blue line along the orange line in the core, instead running the blue line up the yellow line pathway (like they’re going to do with some trains) and running a regular shuttle back and forth between Rosslyn and Pentagon all day long to take care of the anemic ridership at Arlington but also the critical connection of Orange to Yellow outside of DC. I think Dan mentioned something about this yesterday in his Transit Vision post. For the Blue line that runs out to PG, just call it another Orange line, just like the Red Line runs twice into Montgomery County.

    You’d need more trains to run on the Orange line in that case, with the absence of Blue Line trains between Rosslyn and RFK…

    Is this totally half-baked? It seems like keeping connectivity between the far southern yellow line and the Western Orange Line without having to travel into the core is the main idea, no? This can increase frequency in the core without relying everything upon the already busy Orange/Blue line Rosslyn crossing.

  2. Wouldn’t you say that NY Avenue is a special case, maybe deserving an asterisk? The station was newly added as an infill station only a couple of years ago. It’s gotten noticeably busier over the last couple of years and it’ll take off once all the major projects in the area are finished, including NPR and DOJ moving offices there.

    It won’t be on your list for long.


  3. Steve, WMATA had consultants evaluate not only a permanent blue line shortcut but also station expansions and additional tunnels in a “Metrorail Station Access & Capacity Study” the board is reviewing now that is scheduled for release this spring. I got a sneak peek at some of the work in a poster at the 2007 American Planning Association Conference and found it very interesting.

  4. Development is also planned at Waterfront and West Hyattsville, and several stations could see a bump thanks to the new Nationals Stadium. The data is just a snapshot from 2007.

  5. I wouldn’t be so quick to label a station with low ridership (defined as the lower quartile of Metro stations, more or less – as 20 is ~25% of 86) as ‘underperforming.’

    Take a look at those busy stations. Yes, they’re mostly high density areas, but they’re also areas that compose the hub of this hub and spoke system. They’re either downtown, or in key nodes near the core like Rosslyn, Crystal City/Pentagon area, or Silver Spring. This really shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

    The only highly used stations for the fringe are termini, like New Carrolton, Vienna, or Shady Grove.

    I know the temptation is to try and get those less used stations to be more like Bethesda or Ballston, but consider the context of most of those less used stations – they’re almost all outside the core in primarily residential areas, or in areas with many alternatives.

    I’m not trying to defend WMATA’s development practices here (they’re really less than ideal), but I think it’s a little backwards to look at increasing ridership based on underperforming stations – if you want to pursue TOD, you should be looking for land near transit, regardless of how well utilized it is or not. Still, some stations are just going to be less utilized than others. My local station (Potomac Ave) is that way. There are some opportunities for TOD and new development on a few vacant lots near the station, but for the most part, the character of the area is not going to change a great deal in the near future – it’s a whole lot of rowhouses, it’s already a big bus hub, and there’s just not a whole lot of developable land around. No doubt we want to use existing assets best we can, but we also don’t want some arbitrary goal that ignores the local context.

    NY Ave, as JD notes, has similar numbers but has a lot more potential for growth.

  6. I’m arguing jurisdictions have a responsibility to plan to make every station a node of development within reasonable limits. At Potomac Ave this may mean boosting bus ridership (which may entail buses improvements, maps, route and schedule changes, better bus shelters, programs with employers, etc) and/or up-zoning in the neighborhood.

  7. A friend of mine suggested what a counter-intuative move: Make intown trips more expensive, and longer rides from outer suburbs less expensive. Basically, scale the price to the median income of its surroundings.

    Typically, there is greater demand for transit oriented development and living space in popular urban centers, the result, in many instances, is gentrification. So we’ve got a lot of rich folks in Dupont circle taking trains to work on the hill. This is OK, but we’ve also got a lot of poor or middle-class folks living in delapidated first generation burbs. Many of the resident in these neighborhood have a car; it’s hard to live in these places without one. Asking them to use transit when their neighborhoods were designed around automobiles is, sorta, like asking them to pay twice. The folks who live in Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle can afford to pay more.

    What do you think? I know… it’ll never happen, but I think it’s an interesting idea.

  8. Some of these low ridership stations like the ones on the Red Line are low because the nearby end station is more appealing. When they are in park-and-ride areas, as in the outer stations in Montgomery County, people go to the outermost station because it has parking and the trains are less crowded.

    Certainly more TOD is what we need, because it’s not sustainable to just build seas of parking for all the park-and-riders to fill up the trains. However, also we need more cars and greater frequency since the trains are quite crowded at rush hour despite the low ridership at stations close to but not at the end.

    As for David M’s idea, we already subsidize the suburban riders more heavily both in fares and parking, and that subsidy increased with the latest fare hike. What prevents suburbanites from taking Metro is not the fare but convenience. Since so many have to drive to Metro, and since parking is not plentiful, it’s often easier to drive to work. We need to change the zoning around those stations to foster development where people can walk to the Metro, since walking to the train is more of a win over driving than driving to a parking lot to take the train.

    Lots of people from places like Cleveland Park drive to work, and the last thing we should do is encourage that more with higher Metro fares. At the same time, there are plenty of poor neighborhoods in the city, but more than that, there are plenty of people who aren’t super rich living in even the nicer neighborhoods. We want to encourage living in denser inner neighborhoods by not making it harder to live without a car.

  9. Potomac Avenue station should see an increase. The new Jenkins Row complex with it’s Harris Teeter is huge and to a lesser extent there are other smaller condo projects are finishing up or one their way to finishing.

    I do think they need to do some re-jiggering of the lines – which is something they seem to be considering.

  10. East Falls Church Metro station now has a task force to study the underutilized parcels in the local area to evaluate them for development. The task force members I know are very pro-TOD and will likely ask for replacement of the park and ride with at least a mixed use 3 story development.

    We’re one of the bottom stations because of our location, but honestly, we’re working on it!

  11. I used to live within walking distance of the Cheverly metro, and was a regular user of the stop. I hated it.

    The first problem with Cheverly was the development around it, or the total lack thereof. When I was living there, the area around the station was primarily gravel pits. Not only was there no population, but the landscape was actively inhospitable.

    The second problem with Cheverly was the layout of the station. The only entrance is located at the southwest corner of the station. Any foot traffic from the residential neighborhoods on the other side of US 50 comes in via an overpass, which crosses the highway next to the northeast corner of the station.

    So let’s suppose you’re a pedestrian who wants to use the Cheverly station. You begin at what I will call Point A, the spot where the overpass has just crossed US 50. You first walk a block to the south, dropping a couple of stories of elevation as you go. You then walk the entire length of the station to get to the entrance, cross the lobby, then go up an escalator to the track level. At this point, you look and see Point A, all of twelve feet away. Twelve feet away straight up, that is.

    In my opinion, Cheverly is the worst-designed station in the system when it comes to pedestrian access.

  12. Incidentally, I notice that the least successful line in the system seems to be the Green Line. It has more of the bottom 20 stations than any other line, fewer of the top 20 stations than any other line, and the only top 20 stations it has are busy system transfer points. (Every other line has at least three stations not primarily intended as transfer points in the top 20.)

    I think there’s an obvious way to boost performance of these Green Line stations — improve service. I now live across the street from a Green Line station in the District, but I rarely use it because the frequency of service is so poor. I walk, or take the Circulator, instead.

  13. Every day on my ride to/from Huntington on the Yellow I wonder when the Hoffman Center development and those new condos are going to increase the amount of people using Eisenhower Ave. It makes me wonder if there only reason it’s there is because there’s no good way to walk from the other side of the Beltway without risking getting hit by a car or swimming Cameron Run Creek.

  14. Sure, but have you *been* to the Prince George’s Plaza Mall? Trust me, it is not a major area attraction. However, they have recently put in a ton of new housing and other retail, so ridership there will probably increase soon.

  15. “Mt Vernon Sq-UDC”? As far as I know UDC is up at Van Ness and the Convention Center is at Mt Vernon Square, which might account for some added value.

  16. Ezra, UDC’s main campus is in Van Ness, but there is a satellite campus at Mt. Vernon Square. Or there was, anyway, I dunno if it’s still there. (I thought the Mt. Vernon Square campus was for the School of Business and Public Administration, but their website gives the Van Ness address. Actually, it gives the address “4200 Connetitcut Ave., which is located in zip code “2008.” Call me an elitist, but I’d be suspicious of any college that makes two typographical errors when giving out its address.)

  17. One thing keeping ridership down at Van Dorn and Eisenhower is that there is little or no parking.

  18. Isn’t the bigger issue the usage/capacity of the line? Regardless of the usage of the East Falls Church station, the Orange line is pretty well full during rush hour, and with only one tunnel into DC, there’s no room for extra capacity.

  19. Can you let us know the source for this info? I want to add the info for all the stations to my local community (Hyattsville) wiki. Thanks.

  20. Alex B. and bjk made some of the same points I’d have otherwise made. The other dimension you have to look at is the development pattern of the area around it. I know it’s been discussed. But you can’t always change it.

    Also, you miss a point about office workers driving most of the ridership, that’s exactly the point about Crystal City — which has way more office, hotels, plus shitty retail — and PG Plaza which is not a walkable area and has some office, but not much, and hardly any compared to Crystal City, but good retail, but it’s in a sea of roads.

  21. I don’t think a list of the underperforming stations is the proper way to identify financial “problems” with the Metro system.

    I think one of the most important functions that a transportation system can provide a commuter or tourist is the knowledge that they will be able to “sustain” themselves with only transit (i.e., they know they can depend on transit for what they have to do.)

    To provide just one example, Arlington Cemetery is high up on the list of underperforming stations. Forgetting the fact that as a tourist attraction it probably does much better on weekends, I think having such a station is an important element of the Metro system. Without it, every DC tourist would know that they must venture off of Metro to see all the sights. And if they’re going to need a car/taxi anyways, why not get a car for the entire trip, etc.?

    It’s knowing they can go everyone on the Metro that keeps tourists relying on Metro and increasing the ridership at the high performing stations – Union Station, Chinatown, etc.

  22. The major problem with the Forest Glen metro is that commuters have no good way to access it. Pedestrians from nearby neighborhoods and Holy Cross hospital are required to cross one of the most dangerous intersections in the county, the so-called “Intersection of Death”. Until WMATA puts a pedestrian crossing across the major thoroughfare, like they have done at every other Red Line stop in Montgomery County, people will not feel safe walking to and from the station – especially at night.

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  24. The Forest Glen Metro Station is a mere one-half mile from Holy Cross Hospital–Maryland’s largest hospital after Johns Hopkins. So why so under-used?

    (1) No signs in the Metro station directing strangers to the hospital. None! We neighbors are regularly giving directions to visitors.

    (2) People-hostile Georgia Avenue. Despite years of loud advocacy, the intersection of Georgia and Forest Glen remains a moat of sharks for us two-legged types.

    (3) The hospital makes only limited efforts to encourage walking by employees, patients and visitors. More walking would promote health and reduce the need to construct new parking spaces at great expense to the state’s hospital ratepayers!

    (4) The County has not installed signs directing pedestrians to and from the hospital along Forest Glen Road.

  25. For East Falls Chruch, I’d say one of the major problems is that there’s just no parking, and in a suburban area that’s essential. I used someplace where it took nearly the same amount of time for me to drive to Vienna, Dunn Loring, West Falls Church, and East Falls Church. The station I used changed over the years simply depending on which one would most reliably have parking at the time I arrived. Vienna’s parking, even with the huge, somewhat-recently built lots, still consistantly fills by 8:10, so I stopped using it – if you get there at 8:12 you’re SOL and have to drive in or drive to another station which is sure to make you late for work. West Falls Church now almost has parking available until after 9:00, so that became my choice. I think East Falls Church has limited ridership due to the limited parking, pure and simple.

    With the new parking rates and fares, taking the metro from out there costs more that $10 a day. For that you can park at many lots in the business districts of the city (granted you still have to pay for gas, but distance into the city often isn’t much further than to the metro station). And for the time it takes to drive to the metro and then ride in, in many areas you could just drive in. I know that metro needs the money, but those rates are going to send suburbanites away.

    But then I moved to an apartment in Mt. Pleasant, and now all is well. ;)

  26. Interesting information… but does it drive any kind of decision? Are we going to really close a station? What are the variable costs that would be saved by such an action?

    Instead the information is a call for action for urban infill. Increasing metro use should be a goal for all local jurisdictions, particularly in this time of global warming. County land use plans should reflect actions that increase density around metro stations. Increasing everyones ability to use mass transport, and decreasing the need to build more and wider highways.

    One example of poor governmental planning is the current activity near the Cheverly station where the County is approving more industrial low employment/low residential uses in the surrounding area. These uses do nothing to increase ridership… and continue to push housing to the outer burbs.

    Governments at all levels have to synchronize their policies to make this happen. In one of the more frustrating comments I’ve heard to assist in the housing crisis, one congressional leader suggested yesterday thay we have a 7K tax credit for anyone who buys a new home. Yes this helps the new home industry… but it once again provides incentives to home builders to destroy open space in the outer burbs…. and look beyond the opportunities that exist near our mass transport stations.

    The Pumpkin Bandit

  27. Metro could reduce costs by closing some of these “ghost town” stations early at night. I recently rode the Blue Line late one night and was surprised when it passed through the Arlington Cemetery station without stopping. Perhaps other stations should face the same fate, especially when there are adjacent stations close by.

    Also, Kirstin should note that the cost of parking is likely to rise if former Metro riders decide to drive downtown. An increase in demand is likely to set off an increase in prices, thus we should not assume that an increase in fares necessarily reduces ridership significantly.

  28. A lot of the underperforming stations with nearby places of interest (Forest Glen, Eisenhower Ave, Rockville, stations that SHOULD otherwise have higher ridership) perform poorly simply because they’re not centrally located in the system. At the fringes of a hub-and-spoke system, you’re primarily going to get commuters going into the city, rather than people coming all the way out there from every other direction. There’s only so much you can do to boost their ridership, which is why I think Silver Line to Tysons and Dulles was idiocy when the only way to access it from Montgomery County was to transfer at Metro Center at the very latest (not to mention the straining Orange Line, Rosslyn Tunnel, etc.). Only when some kind of a Circle Line is built will these stations become better connected within the system and have more opportunities for higher ridership.

  29. I can only find the data for Maryland station boardings on the Maryland Center for Smarth Growth Indicators Project site. Could someone let me know how to access the data for all Metro stations? Thanks.

  30. Mike, thanks for making me recognize that!! Actually, it is not too severe if the first part to Tysons is built w/o the Purple, but it needs to be built if the line were to extend to the Airport. Or, at least, a reliable BRT along the future beltway HOV lanes-as a temporary measure,

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