Historical data and regional growth projections tell us one thing – Metrorail ridership will rebound and grow right along with the region, and the system better be ready to carry the load.
Local ridership trends that seem to defy a national boom in public transit usage give some pause about the need for planned transit expansion projects. It’s no surprise that even the most ardent of transit supporters might be caught flat-footed when trying to defend infrastructure investments against the backdrop of scarce funding. Some have even gone so far as to question whether Metorail ridership, which just a few years ago looked poised to eclipse 800 thousand trips per average weekday, is experiencing more of a structural downshifting and may experience flat or even declining ridership for the foreseeable future.
All of this debate is understandable in a town obsessed with statistics and “horse race” leaderboards. But when it comes to economics, demographics, mobility, and infrastructure, regional leaders need to look beyond the numbers d’jour and bet on a sure thing – Metro ridership will go up. Here’s why:
1. Short-term snapshots of rail ridership miss the forest for the trees. Or maybe even just leaves.
The graph below shows Metrorail average weekday ridership from the beginning of Metrorail. You can see that ridership grew in the first five years as the system grew from just the Red Line and four stops in 1976 to adding Orange and Blue Lines in operation by 1980. And after all of that expansion was completed, something fascinating took place – ridership declined and essentially flatlined until 1985. During that time, the region didn’t stop investing in Metro. On the contrary, during that same time period Metro built the Yellow Line and extended the Red Line from Downtown into Upper NW DC and then all the way to Shady Grove. Ridership shot up again in the late 1980s while Metro extended the Orange Line to Vienna and the Red Line to Wheaton then flat-lined and even declined through the mid 1990s, all while Metrorail added capacity on Yellow and Blue and (finally) opened up the Green Line. From 1997 through the late 2000s Metrorail saw robust ridership increases despite minimal capacity increases – largely reflective of the underlying economic and demographic resurgence of the central city and its urbane suburbs – and ridership flat-lined in tandem largely with the economic collapse of 2008 and the prolonged Great Recession.