WMATA staff are recommending that after SafeTrack ends, the Metro system adopt a new service schedule that ends at 11:30 pm Monday through Thursday and 1 am Friday and Saturday and runs between 8 am and 11 pm on Sunday. Reducing late night service will provide an additional eight hours per week for maintenance.
Moving forward with this plan will save Metro millions in operating costs, approximately $2 million of which will be spent on new late-night bus service. The WMATA Board will vote on whether to make it official at its December 15 meeting.
Late-night rail recap
We first heard about potential reductions to late-night service after SafeTrack in July. At first, there were three proposals for cutting service, but in September, a fourth emerged. Unfortunately, all left riders facing relatively low levels of service, even when considering that they came with additional bus service. Accordingly, the public reaction (including that from myself) to these proposals was to demand a different choice set, with better service options.
WMATA proactively responded to many of these comments by providing more data to make the case for increased — and daily, not reactive and intermittent — maintenance time. Agency staff are now recommending that the board adopt Proposal 3, which keeps the system open until 1 AM on Fridays and Saturdays.
On Monday, WMATA released an analysis of all the public input collected during October, focusing particularly on the findings of a rider survey that garnered almost 15,000 responses in 25 days. The analysis slices and dices the survey responses based on the self-reported demographics of the survey respondents, including race and income.
The staff analysis found that all of the proposed service cut alternatives would have a disproportionate burden on the low-income population that makes up 13% of Metrorail riders, confirming the rationale behind much of the outcry by riders and elected officials during the comment period.
Proposals 3 and 4 were also found to have a disproportionate impact on the minority populations that compose a whopping 45% of Metrorail riders. These impact calculations are based on existing ridership patterns, and do not take into account whether some trips may be more flexible or discretionary than others for riders — all trips are weighted equally. Public input can help illuminate these subtleties.
The riders who participated in the survey, across demographics, expressed a strong preference for Proposal 3, which preserves service after midnight on Friday and Saturday. WMATA staff concluded that “although Proposal 3 creates a disparate impact and disproportionate burden and there appears to be a less discriminatory alternative before staff considered public input…practically speaking, no less discriminatory alternative exists because minority and low-income populations overwhelmingly prefer Proposal 3.”
Clearly, public input had a substantive influence on the outcome of the staff recommendation. By creating a structured process to receive input through the survey, WMATA was able to gather real information about rider preferences that they were able to incorporate into the decision-making process in a meaningful way.
Is WMATA collecting and interpreting public input in an appropriate and equitable way? It is worth noting that only 30% of the survey responses were collected through in-station surveys that targeted the ridership hours that would be impacted by the service reduction.
For example, my home Metrorail station, West Hyattsville, was surveyed only once, during a Saturday morning shift that yielded the biggest Spanish-language response of any shift by a factor of 3. But out of 14,975 surveys, WMATA collected only 314 Spanish-language responses in total.
It would be interesting — and potentially important — to know if the response results or respondent demographics differed for the online vs. in-station survey groups. If so, WMATA should consider placing more weight on the survey results that most clearly represent riders that will be impacted by proposed service changes.