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Did Ridesharing Kill the D.C. Metro? We Crunched The Numbers.

Other subway systems have managed to maintain or even gain riders since Uber and Lyft launched. Why is the D.C. Metro losing them?

LARRY DOWNING/Reuters/NewscomLARRY DOWNING/Reuters/NewscomWhen the city council in Washington, D.C., approved a plan this year to spend more than $178 million in new annual funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the money had to come from somewhere. To fund the new transit obligations, the city hiked taxes on ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft by 500 percent, along with more modest increases to the city's general sales and alcohol taxes.

Critics complained that the ridesharing tax was unfair: Why should someone who is choosing not to use the D.C. Metro or WMATA buses have to foot the bill for those services? But the city council claimed there was a causal link between the rise of ridesharing and a decline in Metro ridership. WMATA argued that "dedicated funding" was necessary to replace the user fees lost to the private services.

Ridership numbers from the National Transit Database tell a different story. It is true that ridership on the D.C. Metro has declined since Uber first appeared on the scene. But it is the only one of the country's five largest subway systems to see such a decline since the ridesharing giant arrived in D.C. in December 2011. If ridesharing is killing the D.C. Metro, why have other, similar systems managed to break even or slightly gain riders during the same period of time?

Source: National Transit Database, Federal Transit Administration (Chart by Eric Boehm)Source: National Transit Database, Federal Transit Administration (Chart by Eric Boehm)

Compared to the New York City Subway, the Chicago "L" train, Boston's "T" service, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit systems—the only other heavy-rail transit systems in the U.S. to provide an average of at least 10 million unlinked passenger trips per month over the past five years—the D.C. Metro seems to have suffered a much more significant decline.

It's fair to question whether December 2011 should be the baseline for this comparison. After all, Uber was more of a premium service when it debuted, and was nowhere near as widely used then as it is now. One could also argue, as WMATA spokeswoman Sherri Ly did when Reason approached Metro with this data, that it's not the launch of Uber that mattered as much as the launch of UberPool, which offers shared rides and significantly lower price points. While Uber and Lyft certainly competed with public transit in their early days, they were (and still are) more analogous to taxi services. It was the advent of pooled rides in August 2014 (both UberPool and Lyft's Line service appeared in the same month) that really allowed ridesharing services to compete on price with mass transit.

So we ran the numbers a second time, using August 2014 as the baseline.

Source: National Transit Database, Federal Transit Administration (Chart by Eric Boehm)Source: National Transit Database, Federal Transit Administration (Chart by Eric Boehm)

This time, all five major transit systems have lost riders. Still, the Metro is a clear laggard.

In comments to Reason, Ly argues that the ridership decline could have other causes. She points to the fact that it's more common for people to work from home these days, and she notes the rise of alternative commuting options such as bikesharing and rental scooters. But telecommuting and e-scooters are hardly exclusive to D.C., so they don't really answer the question of why the Metro has seen a sharper drop-off than other, similarly sized systems. In any case, the existence of multiple potential causes undermines rather than reinforces the decision to pin the blame on ridesharing and hike taxes on Uber and Lyft users.

And there's another potential culprit here.

"The biggest driver of Metro's ridership decline is Metro itself," says John Kartch, vice president at Americans for Tax Reform. "People have places to go and things to do, and they do not see Metro as reliable, safe, convenient, or even affordable in some cases. People need to get to work on time, and there are only so many broken escalators, long delays, and hot cars they can take before looking elsewhere."

D.C. is hardly the only city with an unreliable public transit system, but there may be reasons why Washingtonians would be quicker to look for alternatives to the subway. A higher concentration of wealth or the geography of the city—the core of Washington is significantly smaller than Chicago or New York—perhaps makes residents of D.C. more likely to hop on an Uber for a short crosstown trip.

Of course, if the city's geography or populace are driving the decline in subway ridership, further investments in the subway are unlikely to lure people back. Instead, it makes the transfer of taxes from ridersharing users to the Metro look like a favor to a well-connected agency.

Ly admits that Metro shares some of the blame. "Metro's year-long emergency safety blitz, called SafeTrack, depressed ridership in 2016 and 2017," Ly tells Reason.

That's an ongoing problem. In fact, Metro actively warned riders not to use the Metro for several weeks this summer, since track work has closed part of two lines and caused significant reductions in service along two others. Trains were running more than 10 minutes apart, even during rush hour.

Those recent closures—along with reduced nighttime and weekend service to allow more maintenance work to be done—have no doubt contributed to Metro's ridership decline. But like the decline itself, they are symptoms of larger problems. Poor planning and years of deferring maintenance on the subway system have forced the WMATA to take actions that further alienate riders and boost alternative means of commuting.

However you want to slice it, those problems are rooted in decisions that WMATA officials made. Does that justify taxing ridesharing services to bail out the Metro?

"WMATA brass and the DC Council think that by virtue of its very existence, Metro is entitled to a certain ridership number," says Kartch. "And that type of thinking leads to the steep ridesharing tax hike imposed by the Council. Instead of improving service, they raise taxes."

The data used for this article can be found at the Federal Transit Administration's National Transit Database here.

Photo Credit: LARRY DOWNING/Reuters/Newscom

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  • NoVaNick||

    When my wife and I go out for an evening now, we almost always Uber or Lyft there. Why? We don't want to have to wait for a Metro train that may well be delayed or break down. Mass transit is a white elephant now that there are more options including bikes, scooters, rideshares, etc.. But the prog politicians are beholden to the transit unions and the archaic idea that we should all live in dense clusters around transit hubs.

  • John||

    Mass transit has always been a white elephant. Even in New York, it needs massive public subsidies to be profitable. The old subway systems were built before the automobile. They haven't made sense since.

    If they had built roads rather than the DC metro system, the city would be much better off.

  • NoVaNick||

    The old subway systems were built before the automobile.

    Make no mistake, the politicians who are the biggest fans of mass transit also want to kill the automobile, or at least privately-owned automobiles

  • John||

    Absolutely they do. They hate the car because it makes it harder to control people. They won't people concentrated and easily controlled.

  • JFree||

    If they had built roads rather than the DC metro system, the city would be much better off.

    Subway system ridership is highly correlated to the amount of road traffic congestion. Eliminate the below-ground option and there is no limit to the demolition and eminent domain that is gonna be needed to accommodate the increased traffic. DC metro carries 600,000 riders per day. Do you think DC roads would accommodate 600,000 Uber trips PER DAY (roughly a 50% increase on current traffic) without turning into a parking lot?

    Most problems in this article seem to be about tunnel/track maintenance - ie capital costs of the infrastructure itself - not the train operations. Which gets to the bassackward way that our munis fund transportation systems and spend revenues.

    Americans tolerate more traffic congestion than anyone else - #1(LA), #3(NY), #5(SF), #10(Atlanta), #14(Miami), #18(DC), #19(Boston) - in the 20 worst cities with mostly third world cities in the non-US slots. Maybe the congestion really is an expression of our transportation freedom and we should be singing songs about it rather than bitching and whining about it.

    What that congestion indicates is that it truly is the automobile that creates problems re how do people move around urban cities. AND that munis in the US are crappy at figuring out how to fix that problem.

  • John||

    No, every subway in the world receives massive public subsidies. None of them are profitable. The US is "bad" only to the extent its taxpayers refuse to give public welfare to subways at the levels other nations do.

    And most of the top ten largest cities in America do not have any form of subway or if they do, it is something like Atlanta that no one uses. So, no, you don't need subways to make a city work. You need roads.

  • JFree||

    ALL transportation infrastructure receives massive public subsidies. Just to give one example - 'streets' take up 20% of the land in New York City. That is roughly equivalent to the amount of land taken up by 1/2-family housing in NYC. Double the amount of land taken up by apt buildings. Taking that amount of land off the potential prop tax rolls IS A SUBSIDY - from those who pay property taxes to those who use that street space without paying a property tax for that usage. My guess is many other cities have even higher % of land set aside to 'streets'.

    There is no way of avoiding that sort of subsidy if 'getting from here to somewhere else' is part of what people expect to accomplish. If all land is private - the only way to get from here to there is either a)to set aside public access land for that purpose or b)in ancap utopia, to negotiate a couple hundred easement/access contracts every day by breakfast in order to get to work. Regardless, they both cost a TON.

    most of the top ten largest cities in America do not have any form of subway or if they do, it is something like Atlanta that no one uses. So, no, you don't need subways to make a city work. You need roads.

    So if you're ok with the congestion, then stop bitching about it. My guess however is that you actually live in a suburb not a city - so what you really expect is a free lunch re transportation within cities.

  • John||

    I am not okay with teh congestion. I am willing to pay taxes to see more roads built to eliminate it. I want my taxes going to useful things not magic choos that give doofus hipsters a way to get home from the bar. Moreover, I am fine with private roads and paying a toll to build them. But idiots like you prevent even that because you expect everyone to cater to your lifestyle.

  • JFree||

    I am willing to pay taxes to see more roads built to eliminate it.

    Yeah - you want govt to demolish someone else's land via eminent domain so you can pretend you ain't coercing.

    Moreover, I am fine with private roads and paying a toll to build them.

    Of course you are. DeRps love cronyism and Kelo too.

    Raw land (not buildings/property) in NYC is worth roughly $2.5 trillion. 20% of that (current % streets) is $500 billion. 4% interest on that is $20 billion/year - and the new owner ain't even started 'operating' the roads. NYC collects $23 billion/year in prop taxes on the rest of the land. THAT is the more honest cost of roads - and tolls don't begin to cover that. Private roads are pure dishonest cronyism.

    But idiots like you prevent even that because you expect everyone to cater to your lifestyle.

    You mean I don't have any fucking interest in suburbanites tearing down the city where I live so they can build more fucking roads? Damn right I don't. I think cities should tell the burbs to fuck off when it comes to transport. Cities should design their roadspace SOLELY for the benefit of city residents and city landowners and city taxpayers. If suburbs want a voice - then they ante up just to get a seat at the table.

    What Libertarians need is an urban caucus. Cuz suburban libertarians are a bunch of ignorant teatsuckers when it comes to cities.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    It's hard to imagine that businesses won't become more decentralized as remote technologies become more advanced. There will almost certainly be virtualized office spaces in the next ten years, and when that happens, onerous commuting will end.

    I have no idea if the giant cities can survive a mass exodus of business. I'm pretty sure we are going to find out.

  • Rat on a train||

    not the train operations
    There are operation problems and occasional flooding.

  • JFree||

    Well I always agree with anyone who wants to open the infrastructure itself to operating competition. Munis suck at operations and always will. And monopoly is never a good operating model.

    Flooding sounds more like a tunnel problem though - unless there are some serious customer urination issues.

    This is all the bassackwards stuff. Munis should raise revs via prop tax or leasing operations space/time - and spend it ONLY on the infrastructure/maintenance. The competing commercial operators should run their trains, collect fares, market their schedules/routes, and do all the customer facing stuff

  • MasterThief||

    It depends on where I plan to go in DC and what time of day it is, but I do prefer to take the metro in from Vienna. Uber and Lyft are a bit too expensive for my tastes going into DC from home. The biggest consideration is always parking. If I know where I can park for free or cheap near where I'm going then it's generally worth suffering through the traffic that we deal with every day around here anyway. It's usually much slower and often more expensive than driving on my own and slowly becoming as expensive for my little family as an uber would be.
    On a side note, metro stations tend to not be located close enough to the locations I need to get to and navigating the trains as well as the area around a station can be frustrating. The older trains don't have visual indicators of which station you're stopped in and it's nearly impossible to understand anything being said over the intercoms. There really aren't any maps posted for nearby landmarks at any of the stations to help tourists navigate outside.

  • JFree||

    This gets to the real problem re underground systems imo. Munis spend way too much money operating the trains as a feather bed for unions - and they suck at the scheduling/marketing/rider aspects. What they should do is build/maintain the tunnels/tracks/stations (which they have to because that's where eminent domain is an issue) - and lease out the trains/operations/customer stuff to those who can compete and fill that infrastructure to capacity.

  • Juice||

    There really aren't any maps posted for nearby landmarks at any of the stations to help tourists navigate outside.

    Have they changed this? There is (or was) usually a map of the surrounding area in every Metro station.

  • Oli||

    Even IF ridesharing killed the Metro, so fucking what? It's called disruption, government busybodies would know about it if they ever dared to do productive work.

  • John||

    Most people who would want to take the metro to work live in the suburbs and own cars. It is really hard to live in the burbs without a car. The problem with commuting by car is not the expense, it is the time. And it is no quicker driving in using a rideshare than it is with your own car. So, rideshares likely attracted people who were driving anyway and see ridesharing as a way to save on parking and gas rather than taking away metro riders.

    What killed the metro was several things. First, they didn't do any maintenance and it became unsafe and unreliable. No matter how horrible the traffic is, you will get to work at some point if you drive. The same can't be said for the metro. There are enough days during the year where something goes wrong and makes it literally impossible to use that people no longer trust it to get them where they are going. You can put up with expense and dirt and crime but it has to get you there. And the metro doesn't often enough to be viewed as unreliable.

    Second, the metro doesn't go to enough places. The DC burbs exploded over the last 20 years and most of it is completely unreachable by metro. The other problem is that one of its main lines, the red line, is a horseshoe shape such that you can be just a few miles from your destination but have to go all the way downtown and back out to reach it via metro.

    Lastly, it is obscenely expensive. It just doesn't make economic sense for most people.

  • NoVaNick||

    Lastly, it is obscenely expensive. It just doesn't make economic sense for most people.

    I figured out that gas would have to cost more than about $5 per gallon for the Metro to be cheaper for me than commuting by car. Even then, it would still take me longer to get to work by Metro-commuting from NoVa to Montgomery County, MD), so it will never make sense for me.

  • Juice||

    So, rideshares likely attracted people who were driving anyway and see ridesharing as a way to save on parking and gas rather than taking away metro riders.

    In DC, before ridesharing apps there was (and still is) actual ridesharing, called slugging.

  • Sir Chips Alot||

    Can't wait for these idiots to take over all healthcare. It will work out awesome!

  • Sir Chips Alot||

    Can't wait for these idiots to take over all healthcare. It will work out awesome!

  • jcw||

    I appreciate the sentiment, but I think it's really important to note that the federal government isn't the only people on the hook for how poorly this is all run. DC, MD, and VA all have voting members on WMATA's board (with the fed. govt).

  • NoVaNick||

    VA recently took a bunch of money from the gas tax that was supposed to go towards improving roads in NoVa, and gave it to Metro. I have no doubt that it will be well spent and give us a world class transit system /sarc

  • Juice||

    They don't need that gas tax money with all the toll money rolling in.

  • jcw||

    I've long considered metro a commuter train for rush hour. For nights/weekends, other options are almost always better in pretty much every way that matters.

    But with the most recent shut down of the east side of the red line (for 6 weeks), it's not even that anymore for me. I bike in to work now, ~7 miles one way. I imagine that when the red line opens back up, I will continue biking and it isn't even a tough choice (and that's with me almost getting hit by a car every couple weeks).

  • John||

    The red line is just unusable. I take my motorcycle to work unless it is raining or snowing. Remember, they shut the red line down for several weeks a couple of years ago. It was supposed to be fixed. And here we are two years later and it is just as bad as it has always been.

  • jcw||

    Yeah, I sometimes take the metro in the city via fort totten to bring in dress shirts, but the couple times I've done that yellow/green experience their own problems and I'm late. I just bring in shirts and deal with the wrinkles of having to shove them in my basket.

  • AuntiE||

    If you fold your shirt then roll it, it will help prevent wrinkles.

  • Sam M||

    Might also matter that DC's pre-Uber taxi service was SO terrible. I lived there in the early 2000s, when I was going out a lot, and I never once took a taxi. Impossible to hail, the zone-based fees were impossible to figure out. So the arrival was Uber was more of a game changer there than it was in other cities.

  • John||

    The metro has always closed at midnight. So, it never really did much good for drunken partiers.

  • NoVaNick||

    They experimented with keeping open until 3am a few years ago.

  • Sam M||

    I always started drinking at noon, so the midnight thing was usually not an issue.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    When I lived in DC (back in the early '90's) the Metro was a great way to get around....if you had the time. Even then shoddy and underfunded (Union) Maintenance was beginning to take it's toll. I was surprised when I returned to DC recently to discover that they had added a line to the system, but NOT particularly astonished to discover that they hadn't beefed up the network to deal with the heavier load and the frequent breakdowns that that entailed simply reinforced my already low opinion of the Metro governors.

    For the same amount of money, DC could have had a really first rate bus system.

    The best thing they could do now is fill the whole thing in with cement (preferably while the Union Bosses are inspecting) and start on that bus system.

  • NoVaNick||

    Another idea-convert all of the Metro lines to bike routes. That would make it easier and safer for both car drivers and cyclists to get around. They could do this to some of the lines at least, and convert others to electric bus routes. The expensive repairs they are making now to Metrorail will be obsolete by the time they finish anyway, so might as well build something new out of it.

  • Juice||

    For the same amount of money, DC could have had a really first rate bus system.

    The buses are damned good, actually. Very extensive and sprawling. You can take a bus from just about anywhere to just about anywhere, but with all the stops, it takes you forever to actually get there.

  • BillyG||

    I live outside of DC. The Metro is better than a car IF:
    1) You're traveling alone
    2) You can afford the extra 30 minutes it takes to go 5 miles

    If you're with a group, a car is cheaper (including parking costs). Round trip costs for metro is over $8/person.

    It'd be interesting to see the impact to Metro ridership when HOV was decreased all those years ago.

  • Juice||

    2) You can afford the extra 30 minutes it takes to go 5 miles

    In DC, it takes at least 30 minutes to drive 5 miles.

  • John Thacker||

    Critics complained that the ridesharing tax was unfair:

    I hate this formulation. It's not a "ridesharing tax" to apply the standard DC sales tax rate to ridesharing or other services rather than give them lower rates or exempt them. Just like it's not a "tampon tax" when tampons and pads get standard sales tax rates instead of a special lower rate or exemption.

    Metro is pretty terribly run, and the rest of the analysis in the post is fine, but I find the description of the tax as misleading. There's been a larger overall move in DC to lower the sales and income tax rates while broadening the base to include services instead of just goods. (There's good reason why Cato and even ATR said favorable things about the 2014 DC tax reform!) The move to include them in the standard tax base was fine.

  • perlchpr||

    But the city council claimed there was a causal link between the rise of ridesharing and a decline in Metro ridership.

    Even if true, so fucking what? Those people have chosen to not give you money. It is unethical to use government force to make them give it to you anyway. Fuck off and die.

  • Mark22||

    But the city council claimed there was a causal link between the rise of ridesharing and a decline in Metro ridership.

    I should hope so: we call that "competition".

    The solution is to shut down the uncompetitive enterprise, in the case the Metro. Maybe they can convert it fully to what it already mostly is: public urinals and housing for the homeless.

  • Juice||

    Friday it took my girlfriend 2 hours to get home because there was yet another fire and they offloaded everyone at the Convention Center stop. She broke out the Uber app and it was going to be $13 to get home. Not terrible, so she was in the process of getting a ride. While she was doing that, it jumped to $30+ because everyone who just got offloaded increased demand. It quickly got up to about $48 so she waited it out and eventually Metro single tracked it and she was able to get home on Metro, but it just took forever. So, I think the Uber dynamic pricing did its job in regulating supply and demand while Metro eventually did its job of getting her home at some point for a few bucks. But, I think every time there is a delay over 15 min, they reimburse your fare. I think she's been reimbursed 4-5 times in the past few months because Metro has been fucking up so bad. I'm so glad I don't have to ride that shit anymore.

  • Juice||

    Instead of improving service, they raise taxes.

    It's called "the things we choose to do together."

  • Anomalous||

    there are only so many broken escalators, long delays, and hot cars they can take before looking elsewhere.

    An escalator can never break, it can only become stairs. (RIP Mitch Hedberg)

  • Rat on a train||

  • kirker||

    Yes, I know the following points are nitpicky, but still: I think precision is important in the context of a discussion specific to numbers (as in ridership-related ones).

    1. The term "ridesharing" -- as a general descriptor for Uber's and Lyft's service offerings -- is imprecise, and for reasons partially explained in the article: literal ridesharing is a term synonymous with "carpooling," and both companies only offer one such service in the D.C. area (out of six total for Lyft and five for Uber). The admittedly wonky term to describe both Uber and Lyft is "transportation network company," or TNC, and the term to broadly describe their non-ridesharing products is "ride-hailing" and related variants.

    2. Contrary to what the second chart suggests, neither company launched their shared-ride services until much later than summer 2014. Lyft Line made its debut in November 2015; UberPool launched in May 2016.

    That said: no, Uber and Lyft didn't "kill" the D.C. Metro regardless of how you slice it. Same goes for the NYC subway, while we're at it: both have experienced declines in ridership because their service has gone to shit. As for whether ride-hail rides should be taxed to subsidize public transit: I'd argue yes, but I'm sure I'm in the minority on that topic (at least on Reason).

  • Wise Old Fool||

    wall of text that sounds pretentious, no one will read it.

  • Longtobefree||

    So just park all the metro trains at the various stations, and let the homeless live there full time, instead of just sometime. Make each station a distinct zip code and TA-DA! no more homeless, no more metro problems; two problems solved. And those taxes can pay the unemployment checks for all the incompetent workers and bosses.

  • Curly4||

    I would say that the cause is the reliability of the system because of lack of maintenance.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Perhaps their riders just decided enough with this sucky subway!

  • Hank Phillips||

    So forcing something down people's throats doesn't make them like it and prefer an alternative? Ingrates!

  • Jerry B.||

    Went to the James Taylor/Eagles concert at Nationals Park a while ago, and metro was closed before it was over. There were also no taxis at all in the stadium area, so Uber/Lyft were the only options.

    Now Metro is pretty much shutting down the Blue line from Virginia to do the maintenance they've been deferring for years.

    Metro used to be pretty reliable, but has failed to be useful the last few years.

  • Wise Old Fool||

    Politicians do no take "correlation does not equal causation" into account when they make decisions. The only put their finger to the wind and see which way the stupid is blowing strongest and go in that direction to please the most uninformed (and majority) of the voting populace.

  • vek||

    Me and my car are like Heston and his gats... They can have my car when they pry it from my cold, dead hands!

    That said, Uber/Lyft are awesome for going places where parking sucks, or if you're going to be getting tossed.

    SCREW any form of fixed rail though. A to B directly is the only way to fly.

  • dew||

    I spent a week vacationing in DC this summer – a few tourist comments (ignoring any economic opinions):
    - The DC Metro system seems to manage an impressive combination of lots of signs yet poor signage. If they simply added helpful notes to track signs – for example "inbound" and "outbound" (like many other subway systems have) so we didn't have to repeatedly figure out if "Vienna" or "New Carrlton" is the direction we wanted - it would have fixed 90% of the confusion/map-checking we had.
    - Also on signs, if you were not on a train with digital "where you are" LEDs/maps, it was sometimes challenging to find the sign telling you the current station as the train pulled in. Never had that problem before on any other subway/train around the world.
    - Generally bad sound, but one train had my very first instance of terrible sound and perfect sound on the same train. One conductor sounded like a teacher in a Charlie Brown movie, yet another was completely clear. Do they bother to explain to the conductors they must keep the mic closer than 6" from their mouth when talking, or is that too much trouble?

  • dew||

    (more)
    - I am not a structural engineer, but the concrete in the stations looked really, really cheap. That includes lots of cracks and chunks falling out. NYC and Boston have far older subway systems, and I don't remember ever seeing stations in either city that looked as structurally questionable as many DC Metro stations. Shabbier and dirtier - yes in both cities - but generally solid-looking.
    - What incompetent idiot thinks it is a good idea to have open-to-the-sky escalators? I know DC does not get a lot of ice, but direct rain/snow/ice/sun on them has to dramatically increase the maintenance and reduce effective the life of that equipment. Do they at least put up seasonal awnings in the winter?

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