Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

Metro now recognizes at least 30 percent of its ridership decline is due to unreliable service, and the old algorithm they used to predict riders doesn’t work anymore. They’re hoping to work on both to bring people back into the system

On October 12, Metro staff are presenting on “new patterns” of Metrorail ridership to the heads of WMATA. The agency is also developing a new tool to understand when and why people ride metro.

Metro is trying to figure out why its models don't work anymore

The previous travel modeling which Metro used accurately predicted most ridership up until around 2010, when it ceased to work. Now they need a new tool now to sift through the data and help them forecast the future of metro use.

Starting around 2010, the ridership estimates from the old prediction model began diverging from how many people actually rode on the Metrorail system. The model predicted increased or level ridership, but ridership since 2010 has fallen significantly from 748,929 average daily trips to 639,101 in 2016.

Metro chart showing Metrorail ridership through the years since the system’s inception. Image by WMATA.

The old modeling that Metro used suggested that ridership was most affected by the economy, and that more jobs would mean more people would take Metro. That's no longer the case. Metrorail has seen declining ridership since around 2010, even though the Washington region has been growing.

The agency is now building what they call a “Ridership Intelligence Platform,” which they hope will help them understand customer behavior and travel patterns. Using detailed data like SmarTrip tap in/out times and locations, they want to better model station and platform crowding to understand how those affect when and how much people use the system.

Through SafeTrack and now Back2Good, Metro says they hope to regain lost ridership–30 percent of which they say was lost primarily due to the system’s lower on-time performance. However, they very astutely note: “It will take some time to regain the trust and confidence of customers needed to return to the system.”

The goal of the presentation that will be given to the Metro Board of Directors is to show how and when people ride the system. However, it also sheds light yet again on the stark ridership declines that Metro, especially Metrorail, has seen over the past eight to nine years.

Most riders ride during the peak, and Metro has to plan for that

Metro calls their ridership numbers a “paradox.” As many riders know all too well, the buses and trains can be crowded during the morning and evening peak rush hour periods, but are calm and empty on the weekends and mid-day. Metro says that the vast majority of their riders take trips that are during the peak (see: 9-5 workday rush hour periods).

Image by WMATA.

Outside of those times trains can feel downright empty, but Metro still needs to be able to provide service for those that use the system at off-peak hours. So when most riders are not using the system, trains and buses regularly go by with few riders. Metro uses this off-peak period for trackwork and inspections, which slow down trains.

From a rider’s point of view, it’s simple: if trains run frequently and reliably, whether during peak rush hour service or off-hours, riders will return to the system.

But it’s more complicated for Metro. Running more service (either rail or bus) above what they do now costs money that the agency doesn’t have, and which jurisdictions aren’t terribly fond of giving. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, especially with the suggested governing board changes.

In the meantime, Metro is looking at other ways that can try to get more people back on the system, especially in the off-peak hours.

Metro says teleworking and “alternate work schedules” cut into ridership

Image by WMATA.

A chart outlining Metro’s challenges in the current transportation landscape indicates that ridership on Fridays is 15 to 20 percent lower than during the rest of the week, and the average frequency with which riders take Metro is down from 20 trips per month to 18 trips per month. The agency says these “four-day-a-week commuters now outnumber five-day-a-week commuters.”

While the agency singles out telework for contributing to the ridership decrease, understanding why people are teleworking is really what they need to figure out. Are employees working more from home because that’s where they’re more productive, because Metrorail riders were told to telework during SafeTrack, or because riders taking Metro less due to the system’s lack of reliability?

The presentation says Metro may try to advertise to those 30 percent of riders who stopped riding because of reliability. They also want to encourage off-peak ridership through third-party partnerships (likely similar to what they’ve done with Lyft in the past), increase the number of employers utilizing SmartBenefits, and promote the system’s passes and other fare products.

What has caused you to stop or reduce your Metro usage, and what could they do to get you to come back?

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.