D.C. and public transport
D.C.'s Metro system is initiating another fare hike soon. What will this mean for encouraging public transportation in the area?
Wednesday, May 19, 2010 - 07:31
BEEP BEEP: A road scene in one of the worst U.S. traffic cities, Atlanta. (Photo: Pam Calvert/Flickr)
A money problem
One of the main tenets of the environmental movement has been to encourage a greener commute. Aside from quitting your job, options have included walking to work, cycling to work and telecommuting. For most people, however, escaping getting in a vehicle for that long-distance run isn't an option. In that case, public transportation has been advocated as the best option. In D.C., we have a relatively great bus system and an easy-to-navigate Metro system that handles over 200 million trips per year. The Metro, a top option for avoiding surface traffic in general, has been fraught with troubles over the last year, however, from the Red Line tragedy, large changes in management and budget problems.
Before the questions of safety came to the forefront last year, most only looked at the cost of the system. Not in terms of how much it costs to run, but how much it costs to ride. For many, the costs outweigh or meet the costs of commuting via car (just in gas, time and parking, mind you). If that's the case, then the local green movement will have a problem on its hands. Last week, the Washington Post ran a somewhat disturbing article: the Washington Metro would be implementing yet another fare hike this year (the last $0.10 increase went into effect this past February).
According to agency officials, the fare hike is to close a budget deficit in the system's operating budget. The budget plan includes a 15 percent increase in fares for rail riders and a 20 percent increase for bus fares. Interestingly, the plan also includes a peak of the peak fare increase, where specific hours in the middle of the morning and afternoon rush would be more expensive than the already increased peak fares.
For those living in the District and within walking distance of immediate outlying stations, these increases may hurt, but may not be horribly painful. All they have to worry about is the fare. Those who live in the areas close to the heart of downtown pay a premium for their short commute through their increased living costs (location, location, location!), but they don't significantly contribute to the congestion problem in the D.C. metropolitan area, since they can rely on the Metro alone for a large portion of their travel needs.
However, for everyone else more than a five-block radius from a station, this latest hike will make the argument to drive vs. ride into town even more convincing in the car's favor. For most concerned, households already have a car (or two), so any arguments about saving money by not paying for a car note, insurance, gas and maintenance fall by the wayside. It comes down to how much they are willing to put up with during their morning/afternoon commutes.
Traffic, traffic, and more traffic
In terms of overall traffic, where does D.C. stack up nationally? Not very well. An analysis of road traffic and congestion for the 2009 calendar year revealed that the D.C. metro area ranked fourth in the nation, falling below Los Angeles, New York and Chicago respectively. L.A., the top traffic contender, is a city of approximately 3.7 million people spanning nearly 500 square miles, making it the second largest city in the United States. It is second only to New York City, a city of over 8.3 million people, living in just over 300 square miles. Chicago, a Midwestern gem, is the third largest city in the United States, with a population of over 2.8 million in nearly 230 square miles.
The D.C. metro area is a bit more complex to classify. The District itself is home to over 550,000 residents, but the metropolitan area has a population of about 5.3 million people spread out across the District, Northern Virginia and southern Maryland. During the workweek, the amount of people in the District doubles in volume. Not counting tourists. It is the ninth largest city in America, and yet, it ranks fourth in the national traffic average. What does this mean for area residents? Lots of headaches. It also means a lot of cars for a town that was not built to handle quite so many in such a small amount of time.
For commuters, this means time spent in cars, idling, and becoming increasingly frustrated with traffic and work (and life in general?). Presuming the average commute is only 30 minutes per trip (on a very good day), for a total of 1 hour of travel per day, the average D.C. metropolitan resident spends at least 260 hours on the pavement just trying to get somewhere. That's about 11 days per year. Spread out over 20 years: more than 7 months of your life were spent being nowhere of real importance, merely in transition.
The amount of carbon dumped into the atmosphere during a typical commute (en masse) is appalling. But many people would rather do that than take Metro. Why? An informal poll revealed several reasons: spotty reliance on train times, difficultly finding parking at stations, time is better spent driving to work than to a garage to catch a train (no time-saving value) and (the biggie): it costs the same or insignificantly less to ride the Metro than to drive. That includes a daily downtown parking garage fee of about $10.
For many living in Northern Virginia, the towns of Huntington, Franconia and Vienna are the end of the line for the Metro, and the closest Metro stop. If you were to park at Franconia and ride in to Metro Center for example, you'd pay a $4.50 parking fee, and a $4.40 fare during morning rush hour peak (pre-peak of peak; fare hike). One way. That would equal $8.80 round trip, for a grand total of $13.30 per day. There isn't much cost savings in terms of dollars to ride rather than drive, so that would leave the value of time and flexibility.
It takes time to include Metro in your plans: time to walk or drive to the station, wait for your train, take the ride, and finish with a 5-10 minute walk to your final destination after exiting the Metro rail system. While that doesn't sound like a lot in comparison to standing in traffic (and why this writer happily deals with the Metro every day), it can be enough for most people to opt for driving downtown and into to the closest parking garage instead. This may be indicative of a more serious problem with the American psyche and increasingly sedate populous, but philosophy aside, the question remains for commuters: why brave the spotty Metro service (elevator outages, broken escalators, train delays), the heat and humidity of summer or the frigid cold of winter when for the same amount of money (or not much more), you can sit in your car, in climate control, and arrive only 2-3 blocks from your final destination? Not only that, you can leave whenever you want, go wherever you need straight after work, and not deal with some of the other interesting folks on the rail on the ride home.
Against the green
For those of you reading this blog, the answer is simple. Why take the Metro? Because it's the right thing to do. Save the planet some carbon grief and deal with the slightly longer walk or the few extra minutes for your train. With ridership increasing, but barely so in comparison with the rate of area population increases, how much more convincing will people need to begin (or continue) using the Metro if fares go up yet again?
The long and the short of it is that while the fare hikes may be needed to help the system, they may ultimately doom them as well. Once the cost savings to ride metro versus driving into the District is gone, all commuters will have to value one over the other (other than the positive environmental benefits) is the time-saving measure, and that is not so great to begin with. Add to that railcars in desperate need of an update and a jarring lack of climate control systems in underground stations, and the whole experience becomes a test of personal will, not a comfortable trip to work.
Using public transportation is the right thing to do and if the cost difference is insignificant, most environmentally conscious consumers will utilize those systems in lieu of a personal vehicle. Many in this region, however, don't think along those lines, so doing the green thing may not be enough of an argument. All that is left is money and time to persuade people otherwise, and the money-saving position may soon be out the window for many.