McPherson Square Metro station by Daniel Kelly used with permission.

WMATA recently released a performance report showing significant declines in year-over-year Metro ridership. But focusing on such a short time period actually understates how dire the situation Metro faces is.

Metrorail's average weekday ridership is down 1.5% and average weekend ridership down 3.5% over the prior year. However, since rising steadily until 2009 and staying near that level through 2011 or so, ridership has since fallen dramatically. Average weekday ridership through December 21, 2018 was down 17% from 2009 levels, while average weekend ridership was down 31%.

GIF created by the author. Click to animate.

Some of the ridership drop in June of 2016 through June of 2017 was due to SafeTrack, the embattled system's maintenence program which involved extended partial shutdowns on some lines, single-tracking on portions of others, and reduced late-night and weekend service hours. The Metro board recently voted to extend these service cuts so it can continue maintenence.

As reported by Faiz Siddiqui in the Washington Post, Metro board members seem largely unconcerned about the drop in ridership. Siddiqui quotes Metro board member Michael Goldman, who says, “I think [the ridership decline] reflects trends that have been continuing over a number of years: the decline in the federal workforce and the availability of work at home by a lot of federal workers … as well as the trends that favor movement to Uber and Lyft. I’m not sure there’s any really good solution.”

In a recent report, TransitCenter outlined a path for transit agencies out of this ridership spiral: think of the entire network and improve service. A WMATA internal report lays out such a plan.

But Metro board members appear to be unwilling to consider improving Metro service. Metro board chairman Jack Evans told Siddiqui, “I think the board is very concerned about ridership. But I think that at least with Maryland and Virginia, they are also very concerned about cost. And it appears the cost — at least as we got into these budget discussions — the cost was overrunning the ridership issue.”

Looking at the broader network, Metrobus ridership has also seen significant declines in recent years.

Image by the author.

But Metrorail ridership has spiraled even more dramatically, a direct result of WMATA decisions to deemphasize service outside of rush hour commuting. WMATA has adopted the most limited operating hours of any major US rail system. On weekends and at night, service frequency is often limited on many or all lines to as little as one train every 24 minutes.

And then there are complete shutdowns of lines and stations, often with no good transit alternatives offered for affected riders. With such paltry, undependable service, even the huge influx of residents near Metro stations hasn’t increased ridership.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld appears to recognize that service has to improve to get riders back, and recently proposed initiatives including expanding the window of rush-hour service. While it wasn’t much, even this very limited move toward improving service went nowhere with the Metro board. If the Metro board continues to show little interest in improving service and bringing back riders, we can expect to see this ridership spiral continue.