People trying to get home after work and travelers heading to National Airport got ensnared in hellish traffic on Friday evening—so bad that some got out of their vehicles and walked. The chaos was the result of poorly-communicated Metro station shutdowns, rainy weather, long bus shuttle lines, and congested roads.
Here's what happened
On Thursday after closing, WMATA shut down the National Airport and Crystal City stations to upgrade switches and install new grout pads. By Friday morning, there were reports of long bus shuttle lines and some delays, but the commute didn't seem any worse than a day with single-tracking or emergency maintenance on a line.
As night fell however, things became chaotic.
Poor communication was a key issue—some riders found out about the station shutdowns once they were already aboard the train. Many riders were unsure of which line they needed to be in to board the shuttle, and the lines grew very long. City buses faced additional congestion from people trying to drive, taxi, or take a ride-hailing service to the airport instead of taking Metro.
Since Pentagon, Pentagon City, Crystal City, National Airport, and Braddock Road are all within a six-mile span, anyone leaving DC would hit gridlock immediately if they boarded a city bus heading south from Pentagon, as I unfortunately did. On top of that, the weather was cold and rainy, which further slowed things down.
— Nawal Atallah (@PaliNawali) November 9, 2018
National Airport tweeted that roadways around the airport were clogged and asked for drivers to park and wait. Things got so dire that some people left their vehicles and began to walk. WMATA reported that buses were bunching on the roadways because of congestion.
⚠Traffic is congested on airport roadways due to heavy rain �� and the closure of the airport metro station�� for @wmata track work.
Avoid circling airport roadways and use Terminal Garages, where parking �� is free for up to 60 minutes. pic.twitter.com/pl8KIdO7Cf
— Reagan Airport (@Reagan_Airport) November 9, 2018
Our Operations team is currently monitoring the shuttle crowding between Pentagon City & Braddock Road, including National Airport. The mix of traffic & weather are impacting our ability to continuously move our shuttles. We apologize for the delays this is causing. #wmata 1/2
— Metro (@wmata) November 10, 2018
Because of the Metrorail closure at @ReaganNational, our traffic reporter on Bloomberg Radio says people stuck in traffic are getting out of their cabs/Ubers/Lyfts and walking the rest of the way. #wmata
— Martin Di Caro (@MartinDiCaro) November 9, 2018
On top of that, it seemed that the bus shuttle drivers didn't always know where they should go or how to get there.
— Matthew Bruckner (@Prof_Bruckner) November 10, 2018
@wmata The shuttle service from Pentagon City to DCA is a mess. Driver got lost and it took 45 min to get to the airport.
— TwinMom (@twinmom430) November 9, 2018
Was there enough warning?
On social media, there was a common refrain: riders either didn’t know there was going to be a severe service disruption, or they believed it would only affect service on Saturday and Sunday.
— Marisha Sherry (@MarishaGSherry) November 9, 2018
I made that mistake myself. I heard about the shutdown when it was first announced months ago, but like many riders, forgot about it. I was given a flyer on Tuesday at the station but didn't read it closely enough. I thought the disruptions would begin Friday night after closing, and found out from Twitter on Friday morning that I had been mistaken. Again, like many riders, I didn't have any other good options to get home. My trip home Friday night took more than 2.5 hours, when it typically takes less than 40 minutes.
So was the lack of warning the issue, or was it closing the airport station on a holiday weekend?
Both, it seems. WMATA chose Veterans Day weekend on purpose to “reduce the number of commuting days from two to one.” Closing stations is never painless, and service disruptions on the weekend during what’s typically a low-ridership time does not change the fact that many riders are trying to get to the airport, and flights don’t wait just because you’re stuck on the train or a bus.
However, WMATA also needed to step up its communication. Riders are a varied group who aren't all checking WMATA.com or scrolling for updates on Twitter, and apart from the flyer, I didn't hear anything about the shutdowns in the weeks leading up to the shutdowns.
There's no good weekend ever to shut down a metro station at an airport for 4 days, so they used historical ridership data to find a low-ridership one, which turns out is Veteran's Day weekend.
But the fact so many people got caught off-guard is on #wmata
— Metro Reasons (@MetroReasons) November 10, 2018
Additionally, WMATA used coaches as shuttles, which lead to confusion because they weren’t branded as WMATA vehicles. Many riders didn’t know what the bus shuttles were supposed to look like, and they were mixed in with the regular city buses. The coach shuttle drivers couldn’t use Metroway, Arlington’s dedicated bus lanes, because they didn’t have transponders to change the traffic signals, according to GGWash contributor Stephen Repetski.
Placing signs on the coaches to show their destinations and indicate they were shuttles likely would have reduced some confusion. That way riders wouldn't have mixed them up with buses that looked like they were going elsewhere, like…NYC?
— Michael Hechter (@enviroMHint) November 9, 2018
Hopefully Metro learns some lessons from this incident, because there are more shutdowns to come.
Right after Thanksgiving, the Yellow Line will disappear and everyone will need to take the Blue Line in and out of DC. Next summer, Braddock Road, King Street, and Eisenhower Stations will shut down for more than four months from Memorial Day to Labor Day.