In June, the Washington Post compared Metrorail to various other rapid transit systems in major cities around the world and said Metro came up short. But if you compare Metro to transit systems built to serve places more similar to the DC region, it’s actually quite competitive.

Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

Post reporter Max Bearak looked at data from competing metro systems from capital cities around the world, focusing on measures like number of miles covered, stations and lines, monthly trips made, and how many cars the system has. When compared to systems in much bigger cities, like Tokyo, New Delhi, and London, Metro scored near the bottom in a number of the comparisons.

But did Bearak really compare apples to apples? When you look at how Metro stacks up against similarly-designed systems, it actually does fairly well. In other words, let’s say a transit system is designed to handle 5,000 riders per mile per day. If it’s operating near capacity, does it make sense to say it’s inferior because another is designed to carry 10,000 or 20,000 riders per mile? I would say no; the two systems are just different examples that fulfill different needs.

Washington’s Metro was designed mostly as an alternative to highway commuting, decades after transit use in America peaked. Consequently, it’s best to analyze Metro against systems with specs that are more like the following:

  • Short train headway in city center (6-12 minutes on each line, or approximately 2-6 minutes between trains during peak hours)
  • Average of 1+ miles between stations
  • Service routes that branch out in suburban places
  • 6,000 weekday daily riders per mile / 1.75 million annual riders per mile
  • Urban population of ~4.5 million people
  • In the neighborhood of 118 miles in length

Below are a few examples from around the world. Metro certainly has maintenance issues, but if you compare it to these other systems, you see that the system is actually doing largely what it was designed to. There is, however, plenty to learn from as well:

Amsterdam Metro

Amsterdam is a considerably smaller metropolitan area than Washington, and the Amsterdam Metro is shorter in length (~26 miles), but there are some similarities between these systems. With 66.2 million annual riders, its per-mile ridership of about 2.5 million people is not much higher than Washington’s. Headways are slightly longer than Washington’s, ranging from 7.5 - 15 minutes.

Photo by GVB Verbindt on Flickr.

Like Metrorail, the Amsterdam Metro is only about 40 years old, and much of its network is on the city’s periphery. One big thing Amsterdam’s metro has going for it is that it’s only one component of its transportation network — trams, buses, and ferries are all important in the city. Perhaps the most important contrast between DC and cities that have systems similar to Metrorail, like Amsterdam, is that rail forms only one component of a successful multimodal network. DC has various other modes of mass transit, but Metro is by far what commuters use the most.

Trams in Amsterdam, on the other hand, actually have higher ridership than the city’s metro. Along with buses and ferries, they offer a wide variety of options for transportation in places where rapid transit does not go. This does not even take Amsterdam’s heavy bicycle use into consideration— there are actually more cyclists than car or transit users in the city.

A map of Amsterdam’s metro system.

Berlin S-Bahn

Unlike most S-Bahns, which are strictly commuter rail systems, the Berlin S-Bahn has third-rail electrification, its routes extensively serve the city proper, and its stations are relatively close together — there’s an average of 1.21 miles between stations. With 1.3 million daily riders and 15 routes, it outshines WMATA in a number of ways, but its per-mile ridership is similar (~6,500 daily).

In this sense, Metro shares similarities to this hybrid S-Bahn system. Like Amsterdam, Berlin also relies on other transit modes: an additional rapid transit system (U-Bahn), regional trains, an extensive tram network, and a bus fleet.

Berlin’s S-Bahn. Image from S-Bahn Berlin.

San Francisco BART

The United States has several Metrorail-like systems, with BART being one of them. BART has around 1.2 million riders per mile annually, and an average of 2.3 miles between stations. Being on par with other American systems may not seem impressive if Washington’s goal is to have a world class metro, but BART is an integral part of transit in the entire Bay Area.

The BART system. Image from BART.

One area where San Francisco actually edges out DC: it has more transit commuters.

Inside a new BART car. Image from BART.

Paris RER

The RER is Paris’s commuter rail system, but its frequent service gives it some similar qualities to rapid transit. Comparing it to Metro is a little more difficult, as its five lines have two different operators. Some of the few available official statistics show that Line A has over 4.4 million annual riders per mile (16,800 per day) and peak headways of two minutes, making it as efficient as a rapid transit system.

Paris’ RER. Image from RATP.

One notable difference between the RER Line A and Metrorail is that the average headway in the Paris city core never drops 12.5 minutes (Metrorail’s headways in the city core can be as high as 20 minutes on the weekend, or even higher during track work). The RER’s reliability, on top of Paris’s various other transit options, is a big reason for RER’s higher ridership.

Madrid Metro

The Madrid Metro is a conventional rapid transit system, and is Metro’s closest relative among the cities the Post article mentions. Madrid is somewhat larger in population and has a metro network of almost 183 miles.

Madrid’s Metro. Image from Metro de Madrid.

At 3.1 million annual riders per mile, Madrid has almost twice as many riders as Washington. Opened in 1919, the Madrid Metro is far older than DC’s system, but most of the system was constructed in the last two decades. The system’s MetroSur (Line 12 — built in 2003) is a particularly encouraging model for Washington. This line operates exclusively in Madrid’s suburbs, and boasts station locations within 600 meters of 60% of residences in a service area of a million people. Notably, however, the suburbs MetroSur serves have population densities similar to DC or Alexandria, making quality transit services to Madrid’s periphery more viable.

If Washington increases the density of its Metrorail network, as well as the overall population density across the metropolitan area, reaching a figure closer to Madrid’s 570 million annual riders could be an achievable goal in the coming decades.

Madrid’s Metro. Image from Metro de Madrid.

What other similar examples could Metro learn from?



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Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.