The D.C. Metro Is Still a Mess, But a ‘Carpocalypse’ Has Yet To Materialize

The fear that offices will reopen after the epidemic and workers won’t take transit again, has persisted for 18 months. It could lead to “traffic apocalypse”, clogged roads with miserable commute times.

Washington, D.C. is a good example of why such fears are exaggerated. Even though the Metro rail system in the region is nearing total collapse, congestion levels are below those of pre-pandemic.

Metro’s service has been reduced for the last month, and there have been 20 to 24 minutes gaps between trains along most lines. This is because Metro has 60 percent of its train cars out of service. Derailments were increasing due to a problem in the wheel assemblies of Metro’s 7000-series trains.

Despite hopes that this issue would be resolved quickly, the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority (WMATA), the operator of Metro rail announced today that long waits will continue through December 31.

WMATA started a revised inspection process that will ensure these trains can safely transport passengers. Even if the new inspection schedule proves to be successful, it will still take some time before the cars are ready for revenue service.

WMATA has not set a time frame for bringing the 7000-series cars back to service. The return of its 6000-series vehicles—which were yanked from service last year after several train decoupling incidents—will also be delayed, thanks to a shortage of available parts caused by global supply chain problems.

Metro rail passengers boarded on average every weekday for around 200k in the week prior to the retirement of the cars of the 7000-series. As of last week, that number had fallen to around 126,000—around 28 percent of 2019 November ridership levels. This is the lowest ridership level since Metrorail service was established in 1977.

Initial concerns were raised about the sudden drop in rail service. This could lead to traffic jams as more people choose to drive to work. Many solutions were proposed to stop this inevitable “carpocalypse”, including stepped up bus service and emergency popping-up bus lanes, as well as free bicycleshare rides.

Some transportation experts speculated that the carpocalypse might occur. NumerousAmerican cities after the Pandemic. A combination of a decline in transit ridership and rising auto sales and the health issues people may have regarding riding on overcrowded trains and buses, these individuals feared that they would be unable to access freeways. According to a Vanderbilt University study, commute times in New York and San Francisco would increase by 16 and 11 minutes respectively if 25% of transit riders switched to single-occupancy vehicles.

A similar study found that D.C. would only see about one minute more travel time if 25 per cent of its transit riders switched from driving to their cars. However, even this seems to be an exaggeration.

TomTom GPS, a GPS company that makes GPS devices claims traffic jams in D.C. were around 7 percent last week. Below 2019 levels. This is an increase from the previous week’s Metro meltdown when congestion levels were at 19% of 2019.

Marc Scribner (a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation, which publishes this site), explains that traffic volumes are below average despite a functional Metro system.

Scribner says, “We can absorb these kinds of transport problems better than others because we have an workforce that’s more capable than the other regions to engage telework.” There is a reason.

“The people returning to the workforce are still working on flexible schedules”, he says. This means that there are fewer drivers at peak hour, even though people still drive by car.

The Greater Washington Partnership’s February 2021 report found that D.C. was home to the second-most “remotely-capable” workers. San Francisco was second with more. The same report said that some 1 million workers—close to one-fifth of the area’s workforce—could end up working off-site for a majority of the week after the pandemic.

The Greater Washington Partnership study did not predict significant changes in “high-level mobility patterns” because about three quarters of all trips aren’t commuting. However, switching from working at home to transit would likely reduce the chaos one could expect from people trying to flee an inefficient Metro system.

Metro riders, who depend on it and have to wait longer for crowded trains, find this a cold comfort. The news is bad for taxpayers as well.

Congress approved a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that included $550 Billion in new spending. This includes $39 Billion in transit spending. D.C. shows that this is a large amount of money that can be spent on improving transit systems, which seem to become less important for urban mobility.