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D.C. transit: The past, present, and (possible) future

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See what you should know about Metrorail, Metrobus, ride-hailing, and bike-sharing services

Photo via Shutterstock/Orhan Cam

It’s true. Traffic in Washington, D.C., really is terrible—but it’s changing, maybe even for the better.

The nation’s capital has made strides to stay current in methods to making getting around easier. At first, though, it was slow going.

After the first streetcar line in the U.S. arrived in New York in 1832, it took the District 30 years to finally jump on board and add a streetcar system of its own. By 1921, the city’s first successful bus system was introduced, which later led to the demise of the D.C. streetcar system, which had been riddled with multiple strikes stemmed from low wages and poor working conditions.

Then the Metro came. The first metro in the world originated in London in 1890, while the first metro in the U.S. opened in Boston in 1897. It wasn’t until 1969 when groundbreaking finally began for a metro in the District.

Thankfully, commuters in the nation’s capital aren’t confined to one single option to getting around anymore. Today, there are a variety of transportation methods, from ride-hailing to bike-sharing to simply taking the bus or calling a cab. Apps have even been created to make the commuter experience just a little easier.

Curbed DC reached out to WAMU’s transportation reporter Martin Di Caro to learn exactly what a typical commute is like for those in the D.C. area. He said, “I would say the quality of their commute is often not very good.”

“We ... need the city to design streets so there is adequate space for everyone and that we're not all competing for the same lanes, and so we have bike lanes, bus lanes, and car lanes on major thoroughfares that could solve everyone's problem,” said Di Caro.

The anonymous founder of UnsuckDCMetro, who has garnered over 80,700 followers on Twitter, also told Curbed DC that his experiences as a commuter in the D.C. area have been less than stellar.

“In general, I think commuting here is awful. I think the traffic is awful. I think the Metro is awful,” said the UnsuckDCMetro founder.

WTOP’s Northern Virginia reporter Max Smith said that when it comes to what a typical commute is like in D.C., visitors and residents should expect traffic, lots of it.

Smith said, “If you're coming [to D.C.] out of the blue ... then the most surprising thing is probably the sheer amount of traffic.”

Di Caro described single-occupant vehicles as one of the causes of traffic congestion in the region. “Our highways in many areas are bursting at the seams,” he said.

While having a number of transit options at one’s disposal can help allow for a shorter trip, Smith added that sometimes having a larger number of options can be even more challenging.

“Even for people who live here, the number of options is kind of overwhelming when you try to piece it all together, especially for a trip you're not used to taking on a regular basis,” he said.

For those who are trying to figure out what the best options are, don’t hesitate to download a handy mobile app. Washington Post’s transportation reporter Martine Powers often uses a mobile app on her bus commute in order to stay aware of what to expect on her ride to work.

In an interview with Curbed DC, she said, “Mobile apps are such a big part of how transportation will change in the future too … Having mobile apps that work well and provide clear and my constantly updated information is extremely helpful to have confidence in a system, and I think that it will become even more of a big part of how people use bus systems.”

If interested in learning more about a specific transit option, feel free to jump to the following sections:

The MetrorailThe MetrobusRide-hailingBike-sharing

The Metrorail


Some background on how it all began.

The first serious proposal for a metro system in Washington, D.C. was submitted in 1959 with groundbreaking officially started in 1969. As different Metro stations opened, dramatic projects began to cluster around the entrances.

In “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro,” Zachary Schrag reported that, by the Archives station, the Market Square development arrived with restaurants, offices, and 200 luxury apartments. At the McPherson Square station, offices began to displace the neighborhood’s many porn shops by the mid-1980s, according to Schrag.

By the Metro Center station, the Woodward & Lothrop department store at 11th and G streets NW spent $6 million to remodel and add a direct entrance to the station. Schrag further wrote that by 1980 a quarter of customers arrived by Metro with revenue up by 40 percent.

With each station, Metro ridership grew, especially in the late 1990s, but it did not grow as much as expected. By 2004, the average weekday rail ridership was 653,000. This number was much lower than the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) anticipated in 1969 when it expected a ridership at that point to be closer to 959,000.

In Schrag’s publication, he wrote that by this point many riders complained about reliability issues. From 1994 to 1999, delays were up by 64 percent.

More recently, in February 2017, WAMU reported that Metro ridership continued its steep decline with rail trips falling 12 percent from June 2016 to December 2016 when compared to the same period the year before.

When it came to the average weekday rail boardings in 2016, they were down to their lowest level since 2003. WAMU further reported that only 70 percent of Metrorail riders’ trips were considered on time in 2016.

In order to increase reliability, WMATA conducted an “accelerated track work plan,” called SafeTrack, that was meant to accelerate three years' worth of maintenance work into approximately one year. The program ran from June 2016 until June 2017 with significant disruptions to the service.

With limited system hours, SafeTrack further influenced riders to find other means of transit during their commutes. According a Washington Post article published February 2017, “Ridership was down broadly across all time periods, days of the week, and individual stations.” When it came to revenue, passenger revenue was $64 million below budget estimates.

In order to appeal to riders in order to increase ridership, WMATA launched the “Back2Good” initiative in 2016, a $400,000 marketing campaign that is still currently ongoing. Despite WMATA’s efforts to focus on how safety and reliability are on the upswing, riders have spoken out, saying they would prefer increased hours and reliability as well as lower fares as opposed to a commercial, radio ad, or music.

“Metro, itself, estimates that 30 percent of its ridership decline can be solely blamed on poor service,” said Di Caro. “That's Metro's figure ... People are tired of it.”

Smith also noted that the Metro blamed a significant part of the decline on things like telework, people moving closer to their jobs, and changes in schedules.

“Based on the various studies, it seems like that might be overstated, and a lot of the issue is basically people would take Metro more if it was consistent,” said Smith.

To further address concerns about safety on the Metro, concerns that have plagued WMATA since the infamous Red Line collision in June 2009, WMATA removed every 1000- and 4000-series railcar in July 2017, months ahead of schedule.

WAMU described 1000-series railcars as “not crashworthy,” while also describing 4000-series railcars as “irredeemable” and “the lemons of the fleet.”

With this removal, 20 newer, 7000-series cars are arriving every month. In a WMATA press release, these new railcars are described as “up to six times more reliable than the cars they are replacing.”

What you should know about the current conditions.

In September 2017, WAMU reported that numbers on the Metro may be improving in more ways than one. In August 2017, nearly nine in 10 Metrorail trips were on time. In comparison, from January 2017 through March 2017, roughly seven out of every 10 Metrorail trips were on time.

Other positive statistics include that railcar reliability is up more than 50 percent, offloads are down 40 percent, and fire and smoke incidents are down 20 percent, as reported by WAMU.

In a statement, WMATA reported that “[Metrorail riders’] satisfaction and overall experience [is] at the highest rate in two and a half years.”

The founder of UnsuckDCMetro, whose Twitter account typically offers criticisms against the Metrorail, told Curbed DC, “It doesn't go everywhere you need it to go. It's not really a substitute for a car in my opinion even if you live on the Metro line, but it has been better.”

Currently, there is an average of 612,000 train trips per weekday. In 2008, that number peaked at 750,000.

In five or 10 years, what should the public expect?

Photo via Shutterstock/digidreamgrafix

While unable to pinpoint exactly where the Metrorail may be in five to 10 years, Di Caro said, “I can tell you where Metro hopes it will be in five years: with recovered ridership, meaning they have a better farebox recovery, and they're out of the year-to-year financial crises that have beset the transit system, but that depends on several things that Metro continues to recover better, that it avoids accidents that kill, or wound, or injure people, that it gets dedicated funding from its contributing jurisdictions, which means political leaders in Annapolis, Richmond, and the D.C. Council.”

At the moment, WMATA is pursuing the second phase of the Silver Line Metro extension. In April 2015, the Washington Post reported that the project was 13 months behind schedule with a delivery projected around 2020.

The next project the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) hopes to accomplish is the Purple Line, a 21-stop extension planned to run 16 miles between Prince George's and Montgomery counties. After concerns that the $2 billion project was going to be canceled, the Trump administration agreed to sign a $900 million federal full funding agreement.

This is much further than 10 years out, but in October 2015 WMATA proposed a tunnel connecting the Farragut North and Farragut West Metro stations that is expected to open around 2030.

If there was a tunnel between Farragut North and Farragut West Metro stations, two stations that are only 400 feet apart, then the number of daily transfers at Metro Center would drop to around 78,000 by 2030, less than 2015’s numbers of almost 85,000 daily transfers. Without the tunnel, transfers are expected to skyrocket to over 100,000 by the year 2030.

In the end, Metrorail is definitely expected to continue existing in the D.C. area with developments continuing to pop up around it, especially office, retail, and residential space.

“Metro will still be front and center whereas on its recovery it's hard to say,” said Di Caro.

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The Metrobus

Photo via Shutterstock/melissamn

Some background on how it all began.

The District’s first successful bus service dates back to 1921, but it wasn’t until October 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed a bill that authorized WMATA to acquire the D.C. area’s four privately owned bus companies. The following year, WMATA purchased 620 buses and created the Metrobus system.

The first bus passenger shelter was installed in July 1974. According to WMATA, the organization would proceed to install 828 shelters throughout the D.C. area through 1986.

In 2005, the D.C. Circulator began bus service for the first time. At that point, it only had two routes. Now, it has five routes with over 5.6 million trips in 2013. In terms of ridership, it is the fourth largest bus system in the region.

Over time, the Metrobus began to install more technology in its service options. By 2006, selected routes got “Next Bus” technology that allowed customers to see when the next bus would arrive at their stop. That same year, the Metrobus also became 100 percent accessible for people with disabilities.

In 2015, the American Public Transportation Authority reported that Metrobus provides approximately 424,000 trips on a typical weekday.

WAMU reported that in 2016 bus ridership slowly grew to more than 400,000 Metrobus trips daily with roughly half occurring in D.C. proper. X2 buses also improved with 83 percent of them arriving on time, up from the previous year’s 65 percent.

In 2016, The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) created the city’s first dedicated bus lanes on Georgia Avenue NW.

In June 2017, regular Metrobus fares rose from $1.75 to $2.

What you should know about the current conditions.

Currently, Metrobus covers 1,500 square miles with over 300 bus routes and over 12,000 stops.

In March 2017, WAMU reported that bus reliability experienced the most improvement since 2013 with 282 buses replaced. Due to buses arriving early at bus stops, on-time performance missed the 79 percent target by three points.

When it came to customer satisfaction, the goal was to hit 85 percent, but WAMU reported that it ended up being 8 percent below the target.

“I think what really throws people for a loop is the lack of being able to accurately expect how quickly you'll get somewhere using a certain mode of transportation,” said Powers.

While saying this, Powers told Curbed DC that her commute on the Metrobus works for her. “I like [the] bus. I feel like I know the schedule. I feel like that schedule works for me,” she said.

Not only does she take the bus, but when she moved to D.C., her goal when she was looking for an apartment was to find one near the exact bus route she’s used to.

Powers said, “I recently moved a couple months ago, and ... one of my biggest parameters was that I wanted to be on the bus line that I take now. I made my decision based on proximity to transit.”

From January 2017 to March 2017, ridership was below the target forecast of 251.3 million passengers, instead hitting 222.6 million passengers.

In five or 10 years, what should the public expect?

There are plans to lengthen 22 bus zones along 16th Street NW, which would in the process remove up to 66 parking spaces.

The Washington Post also reports that there are plans for an off-board payment system and all-door entry on S-Line buses. By doing this, dwelling times are expected to be reduced at bus stops.

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Photo via Shutterstock/Mr.Whiskey

Some background on how it all began.

Currently, there are a total of three ride-hailing services in Washington, D.C.: Uber, Lyft, and Via.

There used to be another service, Split, but it ceased operations in the District in October 2016 after having launched in May 2015. There was also Sidecar, but it shut down in December 2015, not able to compete with Uber and Lyft.

Uber began its trek into the District in late 2011 and has since dominated. Across the nation, Uber has arranged approximately 86 percent of all app-based rides since 2014.

Between January 2017 and March 2017, Lyft’s customer base grew 7 percent in part due to Lyft’s decision to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), according to the Washington Post.

Via is a New-York-based ride-hailing app that launched in the District in August 2016. Similarly to Uber and Lyft, Via allows multiple passengers to travel in a shared ride.

When it began, Via was confined to the areas from Cleveland Park to NoMa, but there are plans to expand its coverage area.

Via does not operate door to door, but instead picks up and drops off customers at “virtual bus stops” that are determined by an algorithm. It also only operates during weekday rush hours from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., according to Rides cost $2.95, plus $1 per additional rider.

In the summer of 2016, officials in D.C. estimated that ride-hailing apps may have surpassed taxicabs in trips for the first time, according to WAMU. Taxicab trips in Washington, D.C., dropped by 1.5 million at that time, dropping fare revenue by $13 million compared to the year before.

What you should know about the current conditions.

There are currently over 170,000 ride-hailing drivers registered in the D.C. area. About 30,000 people drive for Uber during a typical week.

In August 2017, WAMU did a deep dive into the low wages and high stress that affect ride-hailing drivers. With a high turnover, drivers often complain about unpredictable weekly wages.

There has yet to be a study on what impact ride-hailing services have on traffic congestion.

In five or 10 years, what should the public expect?

Tech-driven transportation choices are expected to continue to proliferate.

“They seem to have enough money backing them and close relationships of governments that they're not in any jeopardy of going away—at least not right away,” said Di Caro.

Smith had the same sentiment, saying, “Uber and Lyft are definitely here to say to some degree.”

While he says this, Smith adds, “There's obviously a question of how long they can essentially subsidize because they're losing money in most of these cases ... How long can they keep that cost in place, and how long will drivers basically agree to work at the rates that Uber, Lyft, and similar [modes] are paying drivers.”

While more people have been using ride-share and fewer people have been riding the Metrorail, Powers said that she doesn’t expect ride-share to overtake the Metro any time soon.

“I think that there'll be people who tell you rideshare is the end all, be all of the world, and forever, we'll just be taking Uber and Lyft, and that's what the end game is. I don't think that's true,” she said. “I mean, those trains are packed in the mornings, and there really is a demand for it, especially from people coming in from the outer suburbs. So, I don't think Metro is going to die and then we're all just going to be taking Uber forever, but I do think that rideshare will be even more popular.”

Uber is currently testing out self-driving cars and already landed some of these cars in Pittsburgh in 2015. The project would allow Uber to be able to attain 100 percent of the fare without having to subsidize driver pay. The cars would also be able to run nearly 24 hours per day.

Curbed sister site Recode reported that these plans are currently in turmoil, though, due to a “technological standstill and ... significant internal tension, especially among its executive leadership.”

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Photo via Shutterstock/Albert Pego

Some background on how it all began.

Since Capital Bikeshare landed in the District in 2010, the company has expanded from 400 bikes to over 3,700 bikes in December 2016, an 825 percent growth.

According to Capital Bikeshare system data, in the fourth quarter of 2010, there were a total 117,693 trips made throughout the region, while in this recent second quarter of 2015, there were 999,074.

Motivate further reported in June 2017 that every Capital Bikeshare member saved an average of $631 per year on personal travel costs during the year 2016. A small portion of Capital Bikeshare members (18 percent) also noted they used the service six or more times per month.

In September 2017, three new dockless bike-share programs expanded to D.C., including Spin, Mobike, and LimeBike. Each of the companies are similar in that they offer stationless bikes, meaning you don’t need to find a specific company dock to drop them off. They also all cost $1 per half hour.

What you should know about the current conditions.

At this point, nearly 5 percent of commuters in D.C. use cycling as a primary means to get to work.

In five or 10 years, what should the public expect?

More dockless bike-share companies are expected to arrive in Washington, D.C., according to WAMU.

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[UPDATE: A previous version of this article stated that WMATA managed the D.C. Circulator and the Purple Line project. The MTA manages the Purple Line project. A previous version of this article also misstated the year that groundbreaking began for the D.C. Metro system.]