Image by Jonathan Neeley used with permission.

Saturday was the second-busiest day in Metro's history, as the system moved over one million people for one of the largest protests in history. The crowds strained Metro because only so many people can exit stations at once, but overall the system did a good job getting huge crowds to and from stations around the National Mall.

I was one of several Greater Greater Washington contributors who participated in the march. My experience was probably typical of those who entered the system outside of the core. I boarded at College Park at about 9:50 am, and the train was already basically full. After picking up passengers at Prince George's Plaza, the train was truly crush loaded. Despite that, even more riders crammed on at Fort Totten— enough that transit police officers helped get the doors closed.

My train was essentially at capacity leaving Prince George's Plaza. Image by the author.

The (relatively) smooth sailing from northern Prince George's ended there. Trains on the Green and Yellow Lines were backed up all the way from L'Enfant Plaza to Fort Totten, and each station stop was accompanied by a long hold. My train spent at least 15 minutes standing on the platform at Columbia Heights, where as best I could tell, not a single customer was able to board. I befriended two other marchers on the train, and we decided to bail at U Street and walk the rest of the way to the Mall.

A growing crowd at Columbia Heights, unable to board the already-full train. Image by the author.

The delays happened because Metro's downtown stations can only fit so many people

The cause of these delays might not have been readily apparent, especially to those who got off trains before they got downtown. The real issue was not the capacity of the trains, but rather the capacity of the downtown stations.

The march brought many more riders onto Metro than typically use the system on a workday. And on workdays, Metro riders are spread out across more than a dozen downtown stations. But march participants were largely headed to only a few stations— for Green and Yellow Line riders, those were Archives and L'Enfant Plaza. Those stations were quickly overwhelmed by crowding.

At Archives, there are just two escalators linking the platform to the mezzanine, with one going up while the other descended. As usual, the only other way to access the mezzanine is to use the platform elevator.

Metro escalators can move about 90 people per minute, which works fine on most days. But on Saturday, when virtually all the passengers on fully-loaded 8-car trains (which carried close to 1,000 riders each) all wanted to exit at Archives, there was a significant bottleneck.

Clearing the platform after riders alighted each southbound train would take over 11 minutes with just one escalator, and even with both going up, it would still take over six minutes. Add in the fact that trains arrived more frequently than every six minutes, and what happened isn't surprising: the platform at Archives and at other downtown stations quickly filled with passengers. Arriving trains couldn't unload riders onto overcrowded platforms, and the traffic jam of trains started.

The Archives station on  Saturday. Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

Traffic jam and all, Metro did a great job on Saturday

Despite this limitation, though, Metro proved its worth. Other than the congestion, Metro was relatively free of unforeseen problems that required offloads or single-tracking. All told, the subway carried over over million trips.

An event the size of the Women's March wouldn't have been possible without Metro. There simply isn't enough parking or road capacity to accommodate that crowd. But even mass transit has its limits.

It will be difficult for Metro to set ridership records higher than this and the current record-holder, President Obama's first inauguration, without capacity expansion to the downtown stations. The trains could carry more people, but without more escalators and stairs and entrances at the key stations near the Mall, this bottleneck will limit capacity.

Ironically, though, the stations closest to the Mall are not the stations that see the biggest crowds exiting on regular days. Of stations near the Mall, only L'Enfant Plaza cracks the top 10 (it's number 4). That means it's probably a better use of funds to improve station capacity at other stations, like Farragut North, Farragut West and Union Station, where it wouldn't have done much good on Saturday.

What experiences did you have on Metro this weekend?

Tagged: dc, transit

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.