D.C. Metro Seeks Better Service, Fare Cuts to Stop Ridership Death Spiral

Photo:  Lorax/Wikimedia/CC
Photo: Lorax/Wikimedia/CC

The beleaguered D.C. Metro hopes to increase service, especially at rush hour, and partially reduce fares as part of a $20 million effort to check the breathtaking ridership decline — a plan that transit advocates have been demanding for years to improve service in the nation’s capital.

The proposed budget expansion — which still requires government funding — calls for expanding rush-hour train frequency until 10 a.m., and for an additional hour-and-a-half in the evenings, till 8:30 p.m. Some observers have called this this “happy hour train,” meant to serve young professionals weekday schedule, which sometimes includes afterwork socializing.

The agency also proposes adding to the number of traincars it runs at rush hour, which will help with overcrowding.

In addition, the plan calls for no fare increases and proposes a reduction in weekend fares to a flat $2. It will also reduce the price of one- and seven-day passes.

The agency also proposes expanding its service guarantee program. Riders who experience a delay of 10-minutes or more at rush hour would also be eligible for a fare refund under the proposal.

The proposal to increase service hours has been welcomed by most advocates, but some have criticized certain aspects of the plan. For example, Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen pointed to possible equity problems with increasing service only at rush hour for the professional class and not restoring late-night service.

Others said the weekend fare decrease was unlikely to reverse weekend ridership declines on its own.

The plan comes on the heels of some of the worst performance among major cities for D.C. Metro, which has been plagued with mismanagement and safety problems, culminating with the 24-hour emergency shutdown of the whole system in 2016. The agency has shed 16 percent of its riders since just 2015, according to data compiled by Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic.

Metro’s board faced broad criticism earlier this month when it appeared to be balking at service increases that might restore ridership. According to NBC’s Adam Tuss, the additional service hours would cost about $20 million; Metro wants local governments to pick up the tab.

The changes will be discussed over the next two months and would require the approval of the eight-member Metro board.

  • david vartanoff

    Lower fares? better service? the Metro board must have experienced a rapture on the road to Damascus (Syria, not MD).

  • Joe R.

    The reflexive reaction of mass transit agencies when ridership drops is to raise fares. This may or may not increase revenues. Fares should be set at a level which maximizes revenue, just as is done with any other product. If lowering fares actually increases revenue by increasing ridership enough to offset the lower fare, then maybe this should be a model for transit agencies everywhere.

    Another thing which could be tried is lower off-peak fares. During off-peak hours most systems have excess capacity. The incremental cost of another rider is close to zero. Lower off-peak fares can get some trips to shift from peak to off-peak, as well as generating additional ridership.

  • Michael

    Most residents in the core transit areas of DC & Arlington would much rather take a $20 lyft off-peak than deal Metro’s infrequent & unreliable service. If metro ran every 6 minutes on their lines from 6AM to 1AM – at least in DC & Arlington – a lot of riders would use it… even if fares Increased. But they’ve cheaped out on off-peak frequency. 15-25 minute headways are way too long – the dense, core transit area of DC/Arlington is only about 3.5 mile radius of the Washington monument. The rest of the system is essentially commuter rail.

  • Jason

    I literally moved from Clarendon into DC to avoid having to use the Metro on the weekend. That’s how bad I found it. I actually liked my building but it was becoming a real drag that I felt like I was being stranded by Metro all the time. This was before UberX or Lyft were available (back then it was just Uber Black and Uber SUV), and the taxi services were terrible (and expensive); given today’s options for getting around, especially the unified Car2Go home zone, I might have stayed in Clarendon.

    Oh yeah, I unwittingly moved to Clarendon for a job in Pentagon City a week or two before Rush+ started. That was a real WTF moment.

  • Michael

    Metro is a frustrating agency. 1. Having decent off-peak service isn’t expensive. We’ve already built the stations, built the electrical capacity, bought the trainsets. All the expensive things about a subway system. The expensive part of metro is moving 100s of thousands of commuters at rush hour. Off peak is cheap to service. 2. In the rest of the world, transit agencies seem to be able to close 1 subway station at a time to do renovations. Give plenty of warning to riders & get the work done in about a month. Metro’s shutting down of the entire system, single tracking on full lines is an absurd approach. 3. There’s effectively two systems – the mostly underground subway system that services dense DC, Arlington, plus Old Town, Bethesda & Silver Spring. This portion of the system is vital to the everyday lives of the urban residents for many different types of trips. This section needs frequent 18+ hour/service. Then, there’s the mostly above ground, park & ride, commuter rail section of the system. This can have the 2/hr weekend service. The agency shouldn’t split the difference & do 15 min headways everywhere – it overserves the commuter rail sections & underserves the subway section. It would be about the same resources to turn half the trains, having roughly 7 min underground, 30 min above ground service on weekends.

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