Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Night and weekend transit/subway service: Metrorail edition

I haven't written anything about WMATA's "Safety Surge,"called SafeTrack, the systemwide program for focused track maintenance improvements, resulting in the closure of parts of the system for days at a time, because I just can't get my head around how the region has let the system degrade and get to this point. I've written plenty about the general problems, which more than suffices.

The economic success of the city, but the metropolitan area too, is at risk because the city's competitive advantage is tightly bound with a robust and reliable high frequency, high capacity transit system--specifically subway service. It supports residential and business choices, and facilitates mobility and reduces the impact of automobile traffic in significant ways.

For DC residents, as neighborhoods add population and more local amenities are developed as a result, and with other mobility options -- bus, streetcar, bike, car share, some of the degradation of Metrorail has less impact on day to day quality of life.

But longer term, the city is less competitive, something that the suburbs probably don't care all that much about.

I don't feel like elected officials fully understand what is at stake with Metrorail's failures.

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported ("Metro general manager proposes permanent end to late-night service") that Paul Wiedefeld, WMATA's General Manager, is suggesting that late night hours on the Friday and Saturday be eliminated, and that Sunday's closing time should be dialed back to 10 pm, to provide more time for system maintenance.

Many comments on the Greater Greater Washington entry on this issue suggests that the proposal is based on the original development of the Metrorail system being focused on daytime commuter services of getting people to and from work -- mostly for suburban residents -- rather than serving intra-jurisdictional travel, especially in DC and Arlington, or non-work or "leisure" trips in the evening and on weekends.

Degradation of the quality of weekend ridership leads to ridership losses. I thought it was funny how the Metrorail spokesman was quoted in the article saying that weekend late night ridership is way down from earlier highs.  Of course it is, weekend service/nighttime service sucks--I mean has significantly degraded over the past few years.

For example, last summer we went to MoCo Ag Fair with the little girl next door.  We got on the train around 9 pm (it was Sunday) at Rockville and we waited between 30 and 45 minutes for the train to leave.  An experience or two like that and you start not using Metrorail at all on the weekends.  That's kind of where we are on the weekends.  We are very thankful for the existence of Car2Go.

Revisiting past comments on the need for an additional track for service redundancy.  The Post article includes this paragraph:
Metro is a two-track system, which means it cannot perform regular maintenance without shutting down one or both tracks. By contrast, the New York City subway can operate 24 hours a day because it has four tracks, allowing crews to take one set of tracks out of service while trains continue to run on nearby tracks.
I have gone back and forth in comments on threads on GGW and here arguing that the design of the Metrorail system was flawed from the outset, because a two track system lacks redundancy:

-- "Redundancy, engineered resilience, and subway systems: Metrorail failures will increase without adding capacity in the core," 2016
-- "WMATA's recent apology and the real problem that isn't their fault: lack of redundancy, bad design," 2013

about how the industry "rule of thumb" that only hyper-large systems with many millions of daily passengers need additional tracks is misguided, that systems with greater than 700,000 riders, like WMATA, needed at least an additional track to maximize service uptime, especially as the system ages and more maintenance of the infrastructure is required, plus train cars fail more.

Conventional wisdom continues to argue, in the face of all the problems with Metrorail, that the two-track system was the right choice.  (Note that I recognize this is a theoretical discussion now, because the system would have to be completely rebuilt to add tracks to the existing configuration, although it is possible to rebuild and add lines, in order to reduce inter-lining.)

Especially with train failures, which because of how most of the lines inter-line, a failed train acts like a virus spreading its failure across multiple train lines, degrading service for everyone.  Instead of spreading like a virus, being able to shunt a non-functioning train to a third track for removal from the system isolates the problem.

Additional tracks enable extended hours of service. I have been planning to write a piece on planning for late night economies and transit will be an element of the piece.

But the new proposal to cut back weekend service -- which will hurt the nightlife economy in the city and that may play into the preferences of the suburban "partners" who "share" management of the Metrorail system with DC -- also illustrates that subway systems like Metrorail probably needed an additional track and less inter-lining in order to be able to extend service hours, especially later at night, or to offer 24 hour service (something that the London Underground will be doing starting this year, on some lines).

Providing 24 hour transit service versus providing 24 hour subway service.  For years, I have argued that there should be transit service along the Metrorail system when it is closed (Night moves: the need for more night time (and weekend) transit service, especially when the subway is closed").

Overnight transit service map, Toronto.

Other cities have "Nite Owl" or late night bus service, operating when their rail transit system is closed.  This includes Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago, and London, among others.

This is also an issue with transit service to the region's airports, which don't have 24 hour metropolitan transit service ("More on transporation to DC area airports").

Note that DC does have almost 24-hour service on some of its major bus lines, but the suburbs don't.  That means we should be distinguishing between DC and the suburbs in terms of consideration of the provision of overnight transit service when the Metrorail system is closed.  Even within DC, parts of the city have way better overnight transit service than others.

-- Night bus map London
-- Night bus map Hamburg
-- Night subway map, New York City
-- Seattle best practice review of overnight bus services (not absolutely definitive)
-- "New, expanded bus routes to provide ‘reliable’ overnight, weekend service," Toronto Star, 5/24/2015
-- Night Tube webpage, Transport for London
-- "Night Tube start date revealed: 24-hour London Underground trains to start in August," London Daily Telegraph


1.  If Metrorail cuts back weekend hours, the WMATA transit agency should create a companion night owl bus service.

2.  WMATA should create a Night Owl bus service along the route of the Metrorail system anyway.  The proposed cutback on Metrorail hours should be the impetus for the creation of a system of overnight bus service for the metropolitan area.

Note that GGW had a post on this issue  a couple months ago ("Let's learn from how Montreal does night bus service"). Comments by Mark DeLoatch and kk are particularly relevant to this recommendation in how such routes could be created, in part from existing services.

Note that this really should be a TPB/Metropolitan Planning Organization function.  WMATA should be the operator, not necessarily the primary transportation planner.

As an example, the easiest line to put into place Night Owl service would be the Red Line.  For Montgomery County Maryland, two DC bus routes start in Silver Spring, and the 30s line starts at Friendship Heights, on the city-county border.

The 30s bus should be extended to Bethesda anyway instead of stopping at the DC-Maryland border, comparable to how the Georgia Avenue and 16th Street lines continue to the Silver Spring Transit Center instead of terminating at the border, traveling more than one mile into the county.  These lines could easily be extended northward to provide overnight service alongside the western leg (30s) on Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike and eastern leg (S or 70s) along Georgia Avenue of the Red Line.

It's harder for other lines, but is doable.

3.  Overnight service within the suburban jurisdictions would have to be provided, complementing the metropolitan-scale overnight bus service paralleling the Metrorail station network

4.  The overnight bus routes parallelling the Metrorail network should allow "flag stops" so that riders can get off the bus between Metrorail stations, so that they can alight closer to their final destination.

5.  WMATA should provide Night Owl bus services for the region's airports, operating when Metrorail service is unavailable to National Airport and Dulles, and later than the current B30 service to BWI Airport, which ends between 10 pm and 11 pm most nights.  This service could be staged from Union Station.

Overnight transit service map, DC Capital Transit system, 1946

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At 11:10 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I am taking the liberty of copying a couple of comments from different GGW posts.

At the very least, Metro should propose an Owl bus network that duplicates exactly the existing rail service. By this I mean:
1. The new Owl bus routes are color coded the same as the rail lines.
2. The new Owl bus routes stop at every single station in the same order as the rail lines do.
3. The new Owl bus routes use the fastest and most direct roads between stops.
4. The new Owl bus routes do not stop anywhere else, to keep the service as close to the rail line that riders are familiar with as possible.
5. Stations that have entrances that are difficult for a pedestrian to get to from other entrances stay open all night long, so that people can walk through the station from the entrance chosen to host the Owl bus stop.

by Jeremy on Jul 29, 2016 10:52 am


With regards to a "Night Owl" service, WMATA just published the results of their Metrobus Late Night Service Study in April 2016. I cannot say that I'm surprised that it wasn't mentioned in any of the blog posts so far. Late night bus service until 2 am or 4 am is proposed to Rockville, Wheaton, College Park, and several other cross-jurisdictional destinations. It is truly worth a read to fully understand the alternatives being considered. The DC Circulator provides reasonably priced late night service as well.
In regards to lower-income late night service workers who may be looking to save as much as possible for other essentials, my guess is that they opt for a $17 per week unlimited-ride Metrobus pass over a $200+ per month Metrorail pass for travel. Metrobus also links to more places, and when you factor in the in-station access time (escalators on both ends) as well as the walk time to home or business from stations spaced farther apart, I'm guessing the trip time savings between the two modes is not that great - or worse for Metrorail - for most riders. Especially at night when traffic is scarce.

by Say Hey on Jul 28, 2016 7:59 pm

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

@Say Hey
You forgetting one thing about bus service late at night it does [not] go everywhere. 99% of the routes don't cross jurisdictions. If you follow the train and try to find buses that go to every single station it is impossible.

If you are going from Maryland to DC, Virginia to DC and Virginia to Maryland (anytime) late at night is impossible.

DC Circulator service is neutered after 9pm service only on two routes not the others. Georgetown to Franklin Square and not Union Station even though Union Station has people coming and going 24/7, Navy Yard to Union Station stops at around 7pm with regular service. Potomac Ave to Skyland stops at 7pm with additional hours in the summer.

Workers hours don't change based on season for the most part so buses should have the same schedule all year round.

Only the 70, S's, 30S, 30N run really late between jurisdictions. the last bus from Virginia to DC is a 38B that leaves Ballston at 12:40am/12am depending on the day. There are no buses from southern Arlington County or Alexandria to DC at all outside of rush-hour

It is impossible to get from most of Alexandria, PG County and Fairfax County to DC after 11:30pm any day of the week.

by kk on Jul 28, 2016 10:52 pm

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Personally, I'm fine with ending late-night service, at least for the foreseeable future, though I don't expect everyone to agree. The impact on lower-income service workers is unfortunate, to say the least, but people found ways to manage for the decades in which Metro ran similar hours, and there are far more mobility options these days than there used to be.
I saw a talk from Human Transit author Jarrett Walker last week -- someone hardly known for being indifferent to the transit-dependent -- and he made the explicit point that late-night service is one specific area where TNCs are usually a more viable option than fixed-route transit: the demand is simply much, much lower, plus it is more spread out in terms of space and time.

Obviously, Uber is too expensive for most affected workers, but there are plenty of other solutions if Metro and the region are willing to pursue them: Bridj-like vans, car-pooling apps, even straight-up ride subsidies, especially for those that take Metro to get to work in the first place. Imagine a guaranteed Split ride home that costs no more to the rider than the highest Metrorail fare, for example.

That said, I think it was a huge mistake for Wiedefeld to come at this without a plan for alternative transit options, like a "Night Owl" bus service, not to mention more (any!) detail about the benefits of "early" closures in terms of maintenance and good repair. As the links mentioned, Metro is opening themselves up to a federal civil rights complaint if they go through with this without providing alternatives.

I also think it likely that late-night service could return in some form within the next few years if SafeTrack and other programs make a measurable dent in the maintenance backlog, but it would be nice to hear something along those lines from Wiedefeld as well.

by cyco on Jul 28, 2016 1:33 pm

At 11:19 AM, Anonymous rg said...

"I don't feel like elected officials fully understand what is at stake with Metrorail's failures."

They really do not! It boggles the mind. Do Mayor Bowser and the Council really believe that DC's turn around was due to brilliant local political leadership? Memo to them: it was not. It was due to the combination of mixed-used neighborhoods and reliable transit service. Due to their leadership failure, we are on the brink of losing the latter. (Sure, some DC neighborhoods would have come back due to the general trend of preference for urban living. But does anyone seriously think Columbia Heights, NoMa, or Navy Yard would be what they are absent Metrorail?)

Smart local political leaders would have spent the last decade figuring out how to bolster and expand transit service rather than letting existing transit service suffer through deferred maintenance and enter a death spiral. Evans in particular should be ashamed of himself. He was on the Councils that made the decisions to defer maintenance and now he acts as if he is some kind of hero savior of the system. Ugh.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

One of the reasons I haven't written as much about these issues was my hope to get a job with one of the entities dealing with Maryland transportation issues.

but that doesn't seem to be happening.

2. I did write a year or two ago about how f*ing up infrastructure projects like the DC streetcar (and I mean to write about how it's somewhat ludicrous for the city to be spending much $ marketing it now, given its limited utility) make it that much harder for everyone else trying to do big projects.

what's happening with the Purple Line is an example.

3. It's criminal the way things are....

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

BART has been doing "All Nighter" service in conjunction with AC Transit.

It doesn't have the ridership they'd like.

The SF area has created a "Late Night Transportation Working Group" and recently launched a marketing program to build greater awareness of the various services.

Separately, SF is evaluating its late night bus service program and expects to have a report out in the fall.


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