What do Jackson Browne, the Washington Football Team, and Barack Obama all have in common? They all played a part in setting a Metrorail single-day ridership record. Since opening in 1976, Metrorail has set a single-day record on at least 44 days (likely more), with more than half of those in the 1970s. Since 2000, it has set only four.
Below is a partial list of record-setting days, including all the milestone records and some of the biggest events. The full list with citations can be found here.
|3/27/1976||Opening Day, Red Line, Farragut to RI Ave||Metro free all day.|
|1/20/1977||Carter Inauguration||Inaugural commitee paid to make Metro free for 2.5 hours in the morning.|
|~102,000||7/2/1977||Opening of blue line from RFK to DCA||First day over 100,000.|
|150,372||1/27/1978||Last day of week w/daily winter weather-related traffic jams||First day over 150,000.|
|197,201||5/3/1978||Sun Day||Jackson Browne headlined a concert that was intended to be an annual event like Earth Day.|
|198,339||6/9/1978||Bullets NBA Championship Parade||Parade was probably less of a driver than the June ridership bump was.|
|202,244||6/13/1978||No Event||First day over 200,000.|
|~277,000||1/14/1979||Tractorcade||First day over 250,000.|
|301,398||6/15/1979||1979 Oil Crisis||First day over 300,000, and third record-setting day in a row due to the oil crisis.|
|~400,000||4/29/1980||Washington for Jesus||First day over 350,000 and over 400,000? Metro was free all day, so count is an estimate.|
|~400,000||9/19/1981||Solidarity Day March||Similar estimate as prior event, but also reported as a record. Metro was free all morning.|
|~470,000||7/4/1984||Beach Boys 4th of July Concert on Mall||First day over 450,000. Third of four Beach Boys July 4th concerts. 1985 show set a record too, but then band was banned, not to play again until 2018.|
|>500,000||4/22/1987||No Event||First day over 500,000, likely following several record-setting days.|
|564,265||2/3/1988||Super Bowl Victory Parade||First day over 550,000.|
|~565,000||4/29/1988||Washington for Jesus '88|
|604,089||1/20/1989||George H.W. Bush Inauguration||First day over 600,000.|
|786,358||6/8/1991||National Victory Celebration||First day over 650,000; 700,000 and 750,000.|
|811,257||1/20/1993||First Inauguration of Bill Clinton||First day over 800,000. Longest standing record at 11 years, 4 months and 20 days|
|850,636||6/9/2004||Funeral Procession of Ronald Reagan||First day over 850,000.|
|866,681||1/19/2009||King Day of Service||Obama Inaugural events.|
|~1,120,000||1/20/2009||First Inuaguration of Barack Obama||First day over 900,000, 950,000, and 1,000,000. Because of crush loading, gates were opened in many stations which resulted in an estimate. It's unclear how this estimate was determined or what the margin of error is.|
|1,001,613||1/21/2017||Women's March||The highest counted ridership ever.|
Counting riders is harder than you might think
Getting a complete and accurate list of Metrorail's record-setting days is likely not possible. When the system opened, it had extensive problems with both its farecard and faregate machines — in fact, dissatisfaction with the paper farecard dispensers was the most common complaint about Metro in the 1970s.
This also made it difficult for WMATA to get accurate counts, even though it reported exact counts on several days. Before the system opened, the faregates were supposed to count riders when they collected money, but it didn't work out that way. Ridership numbers were unreliable and inconsistently determined.
For one thing, the computer system to do the counting was not installed until a year and a half after Metrorail opened, and once installed, it never really worked. Each gate had a tape that was supposed to tell Metro how many people had used it, but the tapes were hard to read and the gates often didn't work. As a result, Metro wasn't able to get exact counts for more than a decade.
For the first decade, it didn't bother doing a count on most days. On busy days, faregate manufacturer employees or Metro staff would go station to station and try to read the number off of each gate and phone it in. Even this was inaccurate, because the counting mechanism on many gates didn't work, requiring staff to extrapolate the number of riders or report faulty data.
In 1977, WMATA admitted that counts were off by as much as 16%. One sign of the faulty counts was that the machines were reporting ridership and revenue numbers that didn't match up. This was more than a trivial issue because ridership was used to determine the contribution of each jurisdiction.
In addition to faregate problems, sometimes the gates weren't even used. On some very busy days, the gates would be open and riders would drop 25 or 50 cents into giant barrels as they walked in. On those days, Metro would then get a count based on the number of quarters that were deposited, though they acknowledged that not all riders paid, meaning they were undercounting.
On other days, ridership was free and employees would manually count riders or make an estimate as they entered the station.
Record-breaking days provide a snapshot of history
By 1979, Metro was doing two regular counts per week, one at the end of service on Friday and another at the beginning of Monday. This provided information on the total weekday and weekend ridership, which it wanted because Sunday service was still a pilot. Sometimes it would be late getting a count on Monday, and would pushing some weekday riders into the weekend count.
In 1980, as it finished the pilot period for weekend service, WMATA announced it would stop doing daily counts altogether and instead would only do counts quarterly. It appears that wasn't totally true either, since the agency continued to report monthly averages. However, it does seem that it stopped doing daily counts, because it wouldn't report anything other than an estimate or monthly average until 1987, when the faregate machines were fixed.
Nonetheless, Metro didn't start to regularly report records and top days until 1991. Reports became more frequent and more important to news media after the Park Service stopped making crowd estimates following the controversy around their estimate of the 1995 Million Man March.
In the system's early years, record-setting days were more often tied to changes in service, such as the opening of a new line, the rerouting of buses following an opening, or the addition of parking restrictions. Later it became more event driven; inaugurals, marches, and large events on the National Mall start to dominate. Sometimes there isn't an event—or not much of one—and the record is just an increasing baseload pushed higher by the usual ridership bumps in April and June.
While the list of record-breaking days is incomplete, Metro's estimates still provides a unique snapshot of the city's history—and the country's history—over the past 40 years.