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D.C.'s Metro Has Warned Riders Against Taking the Metro. I Did it Anyway.

Washington D.C.'s rail transit system is increasingly irrelevant to the city it's supposed to serve.

Against the advice of Washington D.C.'s rail transit authorities, I decided to take D.C.'s rail transit system this morning.

As a wave of station closures and service reductions has hit D.C.'s Metro this summer, the agency responsible for operating it—the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA)—has been urging riders to steer clear of its trains.

In pamphlets warning of major delays on segments of the Orange, Silver, and Blue line trains, WMATA has told riders to "only take Metro if you have no other option." Similar advice to "consider alternative travel options" has been offered to riders on the city's Red line, segments of which WMATA has closed to allow for badly-needed repairs at the Rhode Island Avenue station.

Seeing as the Rhode Island station is the one closest to my home, and one that had been making headlines in recent years for all the wrong reasons, I wanted to see just how bad things are. What I found was not so much a Metro system in crisis, but rather one that was becoming increasingly irrelevant to the city it's supposed to serve.

Approaching the station this morning I saw construction crews at work repairing structural damage that was first discovered back in 2016, when concrete started falling from the ceiling. That incident saw emergency repairs performed during a 25-day shutdown in October and November of 2016. It also triggered an internal investigation that uncovered Metro safety inspectors at the station had taken to just cutting and pasting positive evaluations from prior year reports instead of actually checking for damange in some hard-to-reach areas of the station.

Now WMATA is closing the station for another 45 days to finish the job.

I assumed this closure would mean hard times for businesses near the station. WMATA, after all, likes to tout Metro as "the key to the region's economic vitality," bringing in the customers and workers necessary to make the city's retail sector run. But while talking to a cashier at the Dunkin Donuts across the street from the station, I was told there had been no slow-down in business. It was the same story at the CVS further down the block, where a manager said customer volume had "been about the same." A few other restaurants around the Rhode Island station were uninterested enough in the morning crowd of commuters, however diminished, that they weren't even open.

My next stop was the bus bay near the rail station, where the shuttle buses used to replace the idle trains on the Red Line were pulling in. Social media and news articles from the beginning of the Red Line's shut down in late July had conditioned me to expect huge crowds pushing their way onto and off of irregularly-timed buses.

Instead I saw a handful of commuters being picked up or deposited at a decent frequency and without incident.

Declining to take one of the shuttle buses, I decided to walk the mile or so to the nearest operating Red Line station at NoMa-Gallaudet. One of WMATA's performance metrics is the aggregate calories its riders burn walking to their train stations (2.2 million per weekday in 2017!), and I wanted to do my part.

At NoMA, I failed to find even the typical crowding for what should be a busy Monday morning commute. Instead, a less-than-normal crowd of riders waited for trains running at a slightly elongated eight minutes apart. All the stations on my way into the city center appeared less packed than normal save for Gallery Place, where refugees are able to get back onto the Red Line after having taken alternative Green or Yellow line trains that route them around the closed stations.

That I did not find the transit apocalypse I was expecting does not, of course, mean that Metro's problems are overblown: Escalators still break down with infuriating regularity (not a minor gripe with a subway system as deep as D.C.'s); track fires force periodic delays (there was one this morning); fares are up, service levels are down, and some 20 out of 91 Metro stations still need to be rebuilt (a project that will cost $300-$400 million and see some stations shut down from May to September next year).

The anemic crowds and indifferent businesses I saw today are evidence that commuters are abandoning the system in favor of increasingly abundant transportation alternatives. And that change has been a long time coming. Metro ridership has cratered in recent years, going from a 2008 high of 750,000 weekday boardings to an average of 612,000 in 2017. That's slightly below where Metro ridership was in 2001, when the D.C area had about 1.3 million fewer residents. Residents have taken in increasing numbers to biking, driving, and or taking rideshare services like Uber, Lyft, and Via.

My guess is that more than a few of these riders are lost for good to the Metro system, even as policymakers shovel an extra $500 million a year to WMATA to stop its rail service from getting even worse. Shovelling money into Metro will probably help those D.C. residents and workers who can't afford ridesharing or automobile ownership, or are poorly served by WMATA's equally dreadful bus system. But as service degrades further and costs mount, it is worthwhile to consider whether it's more cost-efficient in the long run to invest in replacing Metro, rather than endlessly repairing it.

Photo Credit: Marcorubino/Dreamstime.com

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  • Eddy||

    WMATA with WMATA?

  • Juice||

    When I first moved to DC in 2007, I liked the Metro. It was pretty convenient. 5-10 min walk to the station. A few stops and $1.60 later and you're there. Then it just started to increasingly suck. The fares started creeping up. Then there were crashes and deaths. Then the fares started creeping up more. Then they introduced increased peak hours fares, then peak of the peak hours thing (which isn't that bad of an idea, really). Then there were fires and more people died. Then they started closing stations here and there and cutting back service while still increasing fares. Now it can cost like $4-5 to go 10 stops when before it was about $2.50. And I'd like to think that this is because less of the fare is being subsidized, but no, it's just because their costs are skyrocketing. Now, on the occasion I take it on the weekend, trains stop service at like midnight. Fuck that shit. More money for Uber drivers I guess. Anyway, I stopped using it in about 2011 or so and just paid $200/mo to park in a garage and never looked back. It cost about the same as taking the metro and it was faster with way less hassle (although I counted the number of red lights between home and work, and it was 52 - that's right - 52 traffic lights on a 6.5 mile trip, so it took 45 min +, but it was still faster than taking the fucking Metro.)

  • Pat001||

    Of those 52 traffic lights, how many intersections had redlight cameras?

  • Juice||

    None at the time, but there were 2 speed cameras.

  • Devastator||

    In DC there are cameras everywhere if that's what you're asking. they can easily watch you from stepping out your front door to stepping in the door at your office. Not they will unless you're a suspect, but still, pretty easy. So if you don't like surveillance it's probably a bad place to be.

  • Agammamon||

    Its always cost $4-5 dollars to go 10 stops. In fact, its always cost *way more* than 4-5 dollars to go 10 stops. That fact was just hidden from you before because you paid the rest of the fair in taxes whether you took the trip or not.

  • Agammamon||

    An by Christ, I hope your job pays amazingly well after accounting for local COL. I don't think I could take that commute. I didn't like it when my 14 mile commute took 30 minutes in San Diego. And now I get pissed when going to the store 10 miles away that there are 4 stoplights to slow me down on that road.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Amen to that.
    My commute is 10 minutes.
    But I know coworkers who choose to have a 45+ minute commute. I can't understand that. Especially when the weather is bad.

  • Devastator||

    If I had a 45 minute commute I'd just take one of the $8700 work from home jobs that pops up in this comment section occasionally. Easy peasy.

  • Juice||

    Well, later I got a job that just happened to be 2.5 miles from the house and my commute went from 45-60 min to 5-10. But then I moved farther out and it's like 25 now. But now I don't live in the middle of a bunch of skeezy, trashy assholes that leave trash in my front yard and cat call my woman on her way home. The old neighborhood was going to shit.

  • Juice||

    Oh, I'm sure it cost more than $5.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    When I first moved to DC in 2007, I liked the Metro. It was pretty convenient. 5-10 min walk to the station. A few stops and $1.60 later and you're there. Then it just started to increasingly suck. ... Then there were fires and more people died.

    OK. We get the hint. Pissing you off with poor customer service is a bad idea.

  • Agammamon||

    "And yes, I won't be leaving a tip, 'cause I could... I could shut this whole resort down. Sir? I'll take my traveler's checks to a competing resort. I could write a letter to your board of tourism and I could have this place condemned. I could put... I could put... strychnine in the guacamole. There was salt on the glass, BIG grains of salt."

  • Devastator||

    can't read a book in your car though and fuck stop and go traffic. I'll take the train any day over fucking rush hour traffic.

  • markm23||

    That large increase in costs is a sign that maintenance was neglected for a long time, and the resulting deterioration has finally reached the point that a whole lot of work has to be caught up, or the system has to be shut down. I'm sure that financially it would make better sense to shut it down.

    The best way to help poor people get to work is means-tested subsidies for Uber rides. You get there faster, you get where you're going rather than a 20 minute walk away, and it would cost much less than buses and rails. But for at least 50 years, mass transit has not really been about providing cheap transportation, but about trying to control when and where people go!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Against the advice of Washington D.C.'s rail transit authorities, I decided to take D.C.'s rail transit system this morning.

    Simultaneously the most and least libertarian thing you could have done.

  • Juice||

    D.C. residents and workers who can't afford ridesharing

    I know people who take/took Uber Pool and it would cost them the same as taking Metro. Sometimes it was cheaper, especially when counting peak of the peak fares. It would also get them to work much faster.

  • CE||

    Shut it down.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Leave the rides into valleys of death and Thin Red Lines to Balaclava, WMATA.

  • Aloysious||

    I Did it Anyway.

    Anarchist. Scofflaw.

  • Agammamon||

    One of WMATA's performance metrics is the aggregate calories its riders burn walking to their train stations

    No. No they didn't.

    Each weekday morning, Metrorail riders walk a combined 33,000 miles to a station

    Shit. They did. Imagine how many calories people would be forced to burn if there were no metro!

  • Rich||

    Imagine how many calories people would be forced to burn if excess weight were taxed!

  • Modus Pwnens||

    And they burn even more calories climbing 100ft deep broken escalators in August.

  • Rat on a train||

    What about the express escalators?

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Eeeeeexcellent, our plan to cause global warming by poorly managing mass transit systems is working. The Wall Street Journal reported today that a heat wave reduced wheat crop yields across Eurasia. America wheat farms are growing a fine crop. Hear that, EU and China? Submit to our trade demands or your people will starve. Muahahahahhaah

  • I'm Not Sure||

    " It also triggered an internal investigation that uncovered Metro safety inspectors at the station had taken to just cutting and pasting positive evaluations from prior year reports instead of actually checking for damange in some hard-to-reach areas of the station."

    And the following day, those inspectors were given their pink slips.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA- owww! Think I busted my gut.

  • Rat on a train||

    WMATA tried that once. The union fought back and got them reinstated.

  • BillyG||

    I'm begging you for a link.

  • Rat on a train||

    I was wrong. It was a mechanic.

  • Olga||

    I live in DC and I don't have a car and I rely on public transit. Thankfully, my commute is a 20 minute bus ride and I don't need to get on the train at all to get to work. If I get up early, sometimes I walk to work, but that can take me almost an hour, so I don't do it as much as I should.

    DC needs better public transit. I live inside the city. Parking a car and keeping a car is very expensive. If I decided I needed a car, I would need to move outside of DC proper in order to have a safe place to park it. Street parking leave a car vulnerable to vandalism and theft. Parking in my garage is a high monthly fee just to have a piece of concrete to park your car on.

    The problem with DC transit is there isn't one authority responsible for it. The burden is shared between DC, VA , MD and the Federal Government. There is not guaranteed source of funding. There is some problems within Metro administration itself, but maybe if there were jurisdictional fights it would be easier to keep the system maintained and running.

    DC needs a public transit system because it simply does not have the capacity to handle more cars on the roads nor the ability to build spaces to park such cars.

  • creech||

    " if there were jurisdictional fights it would be easier to keep the system maintained and running."
    Say what?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You can move.

  • Agammamon||

    DC needs better public transit. I live inside the city. Parking a car and keeping a car is very expensive.

    Not as expensive as the unsubsidized costs of mass transit. You're whole post here is basically 'somebody else needs to be forced to pay for my transport as I don't want to be responsible for it'.

  • Agammamon||

    And DC has plenty of space to build places to park those cars - it just means that, at worst, some of the other stuff you value would have to go. So, how much do you value the freedom and convenience of car travel? If not enough to get rid of the 'historic' buildings and all the 'park' space then don't complain about paying unsubsidized transit costs.

  • Juice||

    freedom and convenience of car travel

    Yeah, not in DC.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Build higher and DC will have more capacity. Screw the Washington Monument, George didn't want one anyway. Also DC parking spaces aren't the problem - there are too many of them - by law the DC government (this may have change recently) required for every apartment/condo permit issued had to be 2 parking spaces built. This didn't reduce the cost of the parking spaces but has increased the cost of housing with no benefit to the residents.

    DC Parking

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I lived for seven years at 209 Florida Ave. NW in DC. When we remodeled the kitchen we found crack vials behind the stove. We parked on the street the entire time. In that time our car was broken into once. During a genuine blizzard, some poor soul broke the smallest pane of glass that would serve his/her purpose and stole a winter coat off the back seat.

    Kinda hard to be mad.

    Now, I'm not saying everyone's car would be as safe. But the whole 'inner city jungle' thing can get overblown.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    Other cities do more with less. Your neighbor to the north (Philly, not Baltimore) doesn't have a good parking situation either... in fact, a television show was created about that very thing. It has only two subway lines. And the population density is higher than DC's. So this should be a recipe for a situation that's far worse than DC's.

    Yet alternative transit (uber/lyft) flourishes in Philadelphia, mostly because it isn't taxed and regulated to the extent it is in other cities. A separate regional rail system exists (separate is important here). And better traffic management, INCLUDING a lack of speed enforcement, results in an overall better and more efficient system for getting around.

    Moral of the story -- ultra-rigid structure makes systems inefficient.

  • JFree||

    The problem with DC transit is there isn't one authority responsible for it.

    The more likely problem is that they are trying to combine managing the land set aside for that mobility with the operating of transport.

    Managing the land would be a quite minimalist function - and has to be a govt function because of eminent domain at the edges and ensuring mobility as a natural right. But it means stopping once the stations, depots, pickup/dropoff points and other nodes are set up. All they need to do from there is simply to lease access to those nodes to commercial entities and publish/market that as the 'public transport schedule'. There are no jurisdictional fights - only the need to set some common construction parameters.

    Instead, they also try to operate the various options (buses, etc) - which leads them into union featherbedding, and customer service by bureaucrat, and attempts to create monopolies and restrict competition. Which is always 100% corrupt and counterproductive.

    Separating the functions would also highlight the problems with any railed/tracked system - cost, inflexibility, difficulty of leasing because the entire system also requires track control. Maybe an underground tunnel requires that tracking - but with a focus on land, ideas like using that system for intracity freight as well can be made to work.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Nice troll.

    Now my town desperately needs public beer brewing. We have like 5 or 6 brew pubs but they get crowded and I have to wait for beer and then I have to pay more money. And If I want beer at home I have to pay for a refrigerator and then my beer is vulnerable to theft by my family and everything. We need a single authority who can provide beer for everybody and we will be happy.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    What I hear you saying is that you want free health care because of your addiction issues.

  • Jerry B.||

    Went to the Eagles/James Taylor show at Nationals Park a couple of weeks ago, and when it ended at 11:45 PM, Metro was closed and locked, and there were no taxis anywhere near. I suspect that members of the WAMATA board have a financial interest in Uber and Lyft.

  • Modus Pwnens||

    Did you tell the Uber driver that you had a rough night and hate fucking Eagles?

  • Derp-o-Matic 6000||

    This is a common experience following many Nats game and any night NFL game.

  • Cyto||

    Only a government agency could operate this way. The incremental costs of running the subway for a couple of hours cannot possibly be outweighed by an additional 10k riders. Call it $30k for an extra hour of operation, not to mention any ordinary revenues they'd pull in.

    On second thought, maybe it does cost them $30k per hour to run the subway.

  • Agammamon||

    Hell, fast food restaurants stay open in the middle of the night in a lot of areas with almost no traffic simply because staying open and catching the little traffic they do *reduces the money lost* for those hours if they were closed. They don't make money, they just lose less by staying open.

  • Modus Pwnens||

    DMV needs busways NOW

    Just rip up the metro track and lay down roads. Problem solved.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    How pathetic.

  • Sevo||

    Lessons:
    1) Don't trust government pronouncements, even if they are "warnings"
    2) See #1

  • Berresford||

    With systems like WMATA and old broadcasting, the interesting question is "How few users do there have to be for shutting down the whole thing to be the best decision?" Bravo to Reason for asking that question. As far as I know, no one else is.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Hey, does WMATA do that super-neat thing Denver transport did, where it randomly shuts down a line for the day for whatever reason made sense at the time? Coz lemme tell ya, nothing says 'reliable transportation' like checking for some obscure holiday or "staffing/work issues". Oh, the F-Line doesn't feel like running today? Well, let's not let the everyday commercial wants of a major city get in the way of *that.*

    Ugh, central-planning socialists... *walks away muttering*

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Also, the only thing city transport does efficiently is ferry suburban teenagers to the mall.

    That may even be scientific. I don't know for sure, I'm just saying in a cranky voice.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Well, that and ferry urban criminals to the suburbs. That there is some settled science, so don't you even dare to question my authoritay.

  • Rat on a train||

    If you get rid of Metro we will lose our cadre of highly skilled, professional clipboard holders.

  • BillyG||

    I have ridden the DC Metro and I have seen a world class metro system...in Tokyo. The DC system suffers from so many problems. It's too slow, the trains average 20mph. The system isn't setup to get around the city, only from the outskirts to the central area. They've extended it some past the city, but it's not linked to anything major yet and that's mainly for people outside the city to get to the center. Then there's the cost issue. Its cheaper for four people to drive a car in and get parking somewhere than to pay the metro cost...and before you ask I'm usually with a group when going in to DC.

  • Juice||

    It goes pretty far out into the burbs, but yeah, it's main job is trucking people from the burbs into the city, but it's well enough laid out to get you from place to place in the city. Just not Georgetown or Adams-Morgan.

    And the parking thing depends on if you luck out and get free street parking, a meter for a few bucks, or a garage for $25.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The DC Metro is great for tourists coming into the city from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It is lousy for people who work in DC, because it is useless for the kind of office-to-office hopping that needs to get done to accomlish anything in or with the government...and the government is the only large business in n DC.

    It is, and always has been, Congress' toy train set.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    Could somebody explain to me the uptick in all these stories about the Metro? I mean, I get that there's a problem, but I'm missing the bigger point here -- why is this topic featured on a libertarian website? Are we supposed to be against public transit? Or is it illustrating that government-managed transit agencies operate inefficiently?

  • JFree||

    I suspect the underlying reason is to lay the groundwork for some nonsense about privatizing roads by giving the land away to private entities in a cronyist deal. Since private entities would do a much better job of solving customer service issues and responding to traveler demand.

  • Think It Through||

    My thought as I was reading this, "how did a letter to the editor of the Washington Post or the Washington Times turn into a column on reason?"

  • CE||

    When you get invited to DC cocktail parties, you need to be able to talk about DC problems.

  • MikeP2||

    If you think ride-sharing is a viable alternative to public transit in DC, then you obviously have never been stuck in surface traffic and gridlock. The metro is plagued by mismanagement, but it's the only consistent transit option.
    walking and biking is weather dependent
    cars and buses are traffic dependent

    by and large, the metro will get you where you need to go fairly reliably

  • CE||

    Thanks to neo-Mussolini?

  • Cloudbuster||

    This would be fascinating for a local D.C. tabloid.

    To an international readership it's about as interesting as hearing how the fish are biting at Burr Oak State Park. Where's that? Exactly.

  • Uncle Jay||

    If the Metro wasn't irrelevant, then the DC government would only encouraged to raises taxes to make it relevant.
    Its all very governmental.

  • CE||

    "Only take transit if you have no other option" -- I think most people already follow this policy.

  • CDRSchafer||

    Sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on the Beltway and every other road leading into the city. Or you can bike and take your life in your hands.

  • CDRSchafer||

    Well at least the Green Line's open. That of course has other problems.

  • markm23||

    "track fires force periodic delays"
    How does a mostly steel and concrete track catch fire? Do the residents litter so much that the accumulation between the tracks has become a fire hazard?

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