Last week, Ryan McNeely at Matt Yglesias’s blog wondered how bad the DC Metro really is.

He introduced a few metrics, though mainly compared Metro to the transit systems in New York, Chicago, and Boston, which are systems from a different generation. Among the metrics were weekday ridership per mile, fares, span of service, and passenger fatalities since 1990.

McNeely concludes that the Washington Metro is the worst of the big 4. But he does make it clear that he doesn’t think it “sucks.”

However, there are far better metrics to use. Let’s stop for a second. Think about the transit systems you’ve ridden. Pick your favorite. Now, reflect on why it’s your favorite. I’m willing to bet that for most of you, the number of passengers per day per route mile is not one of the top factors. Most people like transit systems that get them where they need to go quickly and cheaply. They like clean, safe, and easy to navigate systems.

There are 13 heavy rail operators in the United States. I see no reason to restrict my analysis to the biggest four. Especially since the definition of “biggest four” can change depending on what you measure.

Since data speaks louder than words, let’s take a look at what the National Transit Database has to say about the issue. Unfortunately, the NTD does not always give us the best data to evaluate the rider experience. So we’ll have to use proxy measures to some degree. For instance, the NTD doesn’t really show how much of a region is accessible by transit. But we can measure system mileage and number of stations to get an idea.

The chart below shows the ranking of the different systems based on different categories. All numbers are from 2007, the most recent year for which data have been released. The farther left on the chart a system appears, the better it is performing in that specific metric.

Heavy rail systems ranked by metric. Washington Metro is highlighted in red.

One note on the systems: Unless otherwise mentioned, the data refer only to the heavy rail lines in the system. For example, that means that Boston’s Green Line (light rail) and other non-HRT modes are excluded from the analysis.

First, let’s consider ridership characteristics. These measures are probably the best determinant of a successful system. And they probably also indicate whether the system is performing in a somewhat satisfactory manner.

Annual Unlinked Trips (HRT): Unlinked Trips is the count of the number of times a patron boards a vehicle. In this case, it’s the annual sum of all passenger boardings on the heavy rail lines of each transit agency. As an example, someone traveling from Vienna to Dupont Circle would be making 2 unlinked trips: 1 on the Orange Line and 1 on the Red Line.

Washington is in second place. Only New York sees more annual unlinked trips on heavy rail. As Ryan noted, Chicago and Boston round out the top 4.

Annual Passenger Miles (HRT): This is the cumulative total of the miles each passenger travels. In this case, the number is only for the heavy rail lines for each agency. As an example, if 100 people ride 10 miles on a subway line, that’s 1,000 passenger miles.

Using this measure helps to normalize for the amount of transit consumed. A trip from Metro Center to Gallery Place is not the same as a trip from Shady Grove to Metro Center. But in the previous category, unlinked trips, both trips count the same.

Again, Washington comes in second place behind New York. But BART and Atlanta move up into the top 5, while Boston drops to 6th place.

Unlinked Trips per Directional Route Mile: This is not directly measured in the reports available from the National Transit Database, but it is easily calculated using two of the other statistics. This is most similar to what Ryan analyzed in terms of ridership initially. It takes the number of unlinked trips and divides by the number of miles of revenue track (in each direction). It’s not quite the same measure, but it’s close. Note that the number of unlinked trips is per year, not per day.

In this category, New York still leads the pack. But New York is going to win in a lot of transit ridership categories no matter what they do. PATH, also in the New York area comes in second, with Boston, Washington, and Los Angeles rounding out the top 5.

Fares: Another one of Ryan’s complaints is about how expensive it is to ride Metro. He also complains about having to swipe a farecard twice (once to enter, once to exit). So, how does Metro compare?

Metro uses a fare system graduated based on distance traveled. Of the other heavy rail systems in the US, only 2 — BART and PATCO — use graduated fares. The rest all employ a flat fare. On the other hand, commuter rail systems use graduated fares. Since Metro (and BART and PATCO) is something of a hybrid between urban subway and commuter rail, this makes sense.

It’s also positive from an equity perspective. Why should someone traveling 3 blocks (from Gallery Place to Metro Center, perhaps) pay the same as someone traveling from Franconia-Springfield to Shady Grove? Were Metro to change over to a flat fare, some of the longer trips would probably get cheaper, but then the shorter trips would get more expensive.

Let’s consider fares on the low end. While there is a range of prices based on how far and when you travel (and starting August 1, the fare media with which you pay), short trips can cost as little as $1.60. Only 2 systems have a cheaper low-end fare — PATCO and Los Angeles. Baltimore’s flat fare is the same as Washington’s base fare. Tied for 3rd out of 13 sounds pretty good, no?

But we also need to consider the maximum fare. For the purposes of this exercise, I went ahead and considered the fare changes which will go into effect August 1. Starting on Monday, August 2, the highest price you could pay on Metro will be $5.45. That’s if you travel all the way across the region, entering during the peak-of-the-peak period, and pay with a paper farecard.

That is pretty steep. It’s almost 2.5 times higher than New York’s base fare, for example. But the DC Metro is not the most expensive in the country. No, that honor goes to BART, where a trip from San Francisco Airport to Pittsburg/Bay Point will run you $10.90. That’s twice the maximum Metro fare.

Next: Span of service, safety, size and efficiency.

Tagged: wmata

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.