Call them the Metro quitters.
Months of consistently unreliable rush hour service have been emblematic of this rough year for the D.C. region’s transit system. An unknown but seemingly growing number of commuters are dumping Metro, giving up their seats — if seats are even available aboard packed railcars — for cars, bikes or walking.
WAMU 88.5 has received scores of emails and tweets from Metrorail riders who are quitting the system after the lousy summer that ended on a regrettably fitting note: on Sept. 21 a transformer fire at Metro’s power substation near Stadium-Armory will cause service disruptions for at least six months on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines.
“They’ve really completely crushed my faith in them,” says NoMa resident Benjamin Rockey-Harris, 33, one of several ex-subway users interviewed by WAMU 88.5. “I’m much happier walking. It’s working out for me, unlike Metro.”
Weekday rail ridership is down about 6 percent since its peak in 2008, although the trip figures rebounded a bit last year. Among the factors Metro leaders are quick to point to, the recession, rise of teleworking, loss of the federal pre-tax transit benefit, and growth of alternatives like Uber and Capital Bikeshare usually top the list.
But what about riders who have quit the system because the service stinks? Admittedly, that figure is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately quantify.
“I don’t know that we can determine exact percentages and such, but we do know unreliability does have an impact on our customers,” says Jack Requa, the transit authority’s interim general manager since January. “There’s been a decline in ridership. We are certainly trying to determine the reasons for that and anything we can do to offset that.”
Preliminary figures show ridership dipped 7 percent in August from the same month in 2014 — a significant year-over-year loss. And with commuters facing slowdowns and delays on the three lines through Stadium-Armory well into next spring, more riders are expected to quit Metro.
“I’m going to walk”
It’s 8 a.m. on a Monday morning in Washington’s NoMa neighborhood. Rockey-Harris, an IT professional in downtown D.C., stands at the corner of 2nd and L Streets Northeast and makes an easy decision. Instead of turning right to go to the nearby by Red Line station, he continues to hoof it west on L.
“If it worked perfectly it would be 20-minute ride to work, but I’d rather walk 45 [minutes] than deal with the chaos, honestly,” he says.
The chaos he describes will sound familiar to just about anyone who has tried to board a rush hour train lately.
“Metro means that I have no reliability of getting to work on time. I’m going to pay a rush hour fee for a six- or eight-minute wait for a Red Line train, and then possibly not even get on the next train because they’re all six-car trains and they’ll be full,” Rockey-Harris says.
There was no single incident that drove him away from public transportation. Instead it was weeks and weeks of delays, packed trains, and late arrivals to work that convinced him once and for all to give up on Metro. Others share his story.
“I showed up to work 45 minutes late one time, and that was the final straw,” says Matthew Benjamin, 36, a federal worker who lives in Falls Church. He dumped the Orange Line and now rides his bike all the way into his office near Union Station.
“It was the inconsistent times that the trains were running. You couldn’t count on the same train to be there the same time each morning. That made my commute vary back and forth by 30 to 45 minutes at a time. And that wasn’t acceptable,” Benjamin says.
Whatever the reasons for the long decline in trips, Metro can ill afford to lose any customers. The transit authority is projecting budget deficits for years to come as costs continue to rise against stagnant ridership and revenue forecasts. But public confidence — shaken by multiple rush hour meltdowns and major federal safety investigations — in Metro is crumbling.
“I’d rather take the subway but I can’t rely upon it,” says Becky Ogle, a federal worker and disability rights advocate, who drives from Bethesda into Washington every morning. Because she is in a wheelchair, she is concerned not only with train malfunctions and track problems, but broken elevators, too.
“I’m supposed to be at work at the same time my colleagues are, my able-bodied colleagues. But if I get to my station and the elevator’s not working, then usually it takes about an hour to recoup,” Ogle says. “I’ll have to go to another destination with an elevator working and back track on my own through my own rolling, or have Metro pick me up, which takes forever.”
Metro’s lackluster ridership was pinned on several factors, including slower-than-expected growth in Silver Line usage over the second half of 2014, in a recent budget analysis released by transit authority management.
“The general trend over the past three years of lower average weekday rail ridership has continued, with fewer days reaching a ridership total of 750,000 or more, and more days falling below 700,000,” the report said.
When asked what it would take to return to Metro, riders gave a simple answer: better service.
“We have one of the best subway systems in the country. I would just like to see it be on the upswing instead of the downswing,” says Jessica McBroom, a State Department employee who rides her bike to work.
McBroom, a D.C. resident, bikes six miles to visit family in Maryland on weekends instead of waiting upwards of 24 minutes for a train if there is track work.
“Where are we getting with all of this weekend track work?” she says. Metro is more than four years into a six-year, $5 billion rebuilding program.
Some have quit Metro in disgust. Others did so reluctantly.
“I have very fond memories of Metro. My first experiences in D.C. were my dad taking me to RFK to Redskins games as a kid. We took Metro every time and we never had a problem,” says Bryan Davis Keith, a federal employee who now resides in Winchester, Virginia.
“We never had issues with it breaking down or not knowing what was going on…now you are lucky if something doesn’t happen on your commute,” he says.
Instead of driving to the Orange Line station in Vienna, Keith drives all 100 miles into D.C. every morning, taking his chances with I-66 instead of the train.
We heard from many other Metro riders with strong feelings driving their decision to abandon it for their commute. Here are some select testimonials.
“For me, it was in 2014 when WMATA took a turn for the worse. I was constantly late for work and because I had to leave at a certain time to make my return trip, my days were usually short of 8 hours. On the return trip, a ride that usually takes 20-25 minutes from Bethesda to Union Station could actually take up to 45 minutes which made me miss my MARC connection and often times leaving me stranded once I made it to Odenton because I missed the last neighborhood bus. The situation seemed to worsen in the summertime and there was always single tracking, crowded platforms, burning rail and water issues. A simple trip from Bethesda to Friendship Heights to get an allergy shot during lunchtime often took an hour and a half roundtrip, including waiting times. Everything wore me down as WMATA delays became the rule and not the exception and having one day out of two weeks being on time seemed like a bonus. As much as I didn’t want to, I broke down a year ago.”
“I am a Rockville native. I grew up taking the Red Line and had pretty clear memories of using it as a go-to mode of transport into the city. When I came back from overseas a year ago to start grad school downtown, one of the reasons I was excited was Metro. I thought I wouldn’t need a car, it was convenient, and cost effective. I was wrong.
The Red Line has turned into a disaster, costs have skyrocketed, the service and facilities have deteriorated to the point of being a national embarrassment and safety hazard.”
“I haven’t quit completely because it’s still more cost-effective, but ever since I started having to take the Red Line to my current job in Bethesda, I’ve found myself using my own car, Lyft, and trying to take the bus further so as to avoid delays on the train. I try to monitor Twitter in the morning and listen to the radio to be aware of delays on the Metro but unfortunately I still have to rely on the train sometimes. As soon as I can move to a work location where I can rely only on the bus, the bike share, or my own two feet, I don’t plan to take the train ever again.”
“I used to take an express bus to the Pentagon each day, and then take the Blue Line to Farragut West. I got so tired of the delays, and frequent inability to get on the train, due to how crowded it was, that I now drive to my department’s Arlington Headquarters and then take our free shuttle downtown. It takes slightly less time, even with some traffic on 395.”
“When I first moved here I was ecstatic about the availability of public transit and planned to rely on it 100 percent.”
“My enthusiasm declined with the increase of incidents and delays. I am a patient person so I can deal with delays, but what I can’t deal with is fearing for my safety. The final straw was the reduced train speed between Pentagon and L’Enfant plaza in response to much-needed track repairs.”
“Each day as we slowly creep over the bridge I nervously stared down at the water. There have been so many derailments, brake malfunctions and door issues. I am worried that there is a real problem with the tracks and that a major incident is just waiting to happen. I dislike driving. Traffic stresses me out and I’m terrible at parallel parking, but just yesterday I started researching monthly parking in D.C. so I can drive and park during the week. It’s a real shame, especially since I am a self-identified ‘terrible driver’ and strongly feel I shouldn’t be driving more than absolutely required. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take if I can’t rely on metro to be concerned about my safety.”
“I quit taking the train this past summer after three years of consistently using it as my primary means of getting downtown from Vienna. I got stuck in the tunnel twice for 40+ minutes each time and have since developed a bad case of claustrophobia. I now cannot ride the train without getting an inevitable panic attack about whether I will be able to get off it once I get on due to all the stops and holds it does in the tunnels. The persistent holds for 40+ minutes in tunnels coupled with reports of smoke and fires, it just seemed like too much of a dangerous situation to put myself. I now take I-66 to work and always pass by an Orange Line train stuck on the tracks for no apparent reason and feel bad for the commuters stuffed inside it.”
“I’m actually going to move into the city so I can walk/bike rather than Metro. Money is tight but I’d rather pay more on rent and sacrifice space than what I pay now in Metro fares and time. I spend at least 10 hours a week commuting from the Vienna Metro station to McPherson Square.”
“I was a WMATA commuter from 2005 to 2013. I wouldn’t get on it today if I were paid to. I rode from Braddock Road to Silver Spring for a time period before dropping their horrible service in favor of biking or driving to work.”
“WMATA is corrupt, expensively priced, and unsafe. I would rather put my skull in a vice than ride their train. A dead horse is a more reliable form of transportation.”
“This is the second time I’ve given up on Metro, and I’m never going back. I live in Old Town and was commuting to Rosslyn for a past job but now commute to Georgetown for a new job. Braddock to Rosslyn is 6 stops; Braddock to Foggy Bottom is 7 and all on the BL. Should be easy enough, right?”
“Between the inconsistent schedules and repeated delays it would consistently take over an hour door-to-door. The BL runs trains every 13-15 minutes during Rush Hour which is pretty mind boggling. It also cost me $7 per day roundtrip to take the Metro. If you multiple that out by the 23 work days in September, that costs me $161. So to sum it up:
Metro: $155-161 per month, 60-80 minute commute one way, no control over delays, overcrowded trains due to the infrequency at peak hours. Car: $135 + gas per month, 25-30 minute commute, flexible schedule. I also ride my bike a few times per week when it’s nice outside. The Metro is just garbage. I’ll use it as infrequently as possible and from here on out, mostly just for Caps games.”