As New York’s MTA struggles to make sure it has enough money to avoid future service cuts and fare hikes, the WMATA is considering changes to America’s Subway in Washington, D.C. As Greater Greater Washington reported earlier on Thursday, to save money and add, in essence, 45 days to its maintenance schedule, the authority may end weekend service at midnight instead of 3 a.m. As the vast majority of District residents and some WMATA Board members are incensed by the idea, it is one to which the WMATA Board often turns in times of fiscal crisis.
The hours of the D.C. Metro and the way the system is run has always been a bit perplexing to me. It’s full of contradictions and highlights a tension between those who live in the District and those who live in the suburbs. Anyone from New York would probably find it infuriating as I often did when I lived in D.C. a few years ago.
Generally, the Metro’s peak-hour trains arrive very frequently as workers — many of them federal employees — shuttle back to Virginia or Maryland. Much like with New York, D.C.’s roads aren’t extensive enough to — and should not — support the auto traffic the thousands of people who work in the District would generate, and so the Metro is a prime necessity during peak hours.
During off-peak hours, though, the service becomes this hybrid mix of a subway and a commuter rale. During rush hour, the red line trains would roll in quite frequently, but as soon as 7 p.m. hit, the headways slowed to 10 minutes. By 9:30, the wait grew to 15 minutes, and the last red line trains passed through Dupont Circle and Metro Center at midnight or shortly thereafter. On other routes, headways can reach 20 minutes as early as 9:30 p.m., and people coming back from Kennedy Center shows, late nights at work or after-dinner movies often grumble about the poor service.
In July of 2008, Matt Johnson at Track Twenty-Nine tackled the issue of the Metro’s hours. The DC subway system, he noted, is one of the first in the nation to close entirely and the first to begin the closing process during the week. It creates, Johnson says, some tension in the area. He wrote:
It would seem on the surface to be essential for the subway to stay open late in Our Nation’s Captial. While it is true that Washington has long held the distinction of being known as an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of town, they don’t exactly roll up the sidewalks at 11:30. They do start rolling up the Metro, though. They start shutting it down at 11:24 every evening Sunday through Thursday.
And while the party-goers and clubbers have the benefit of an extra 3 hours of service on Fridays and Saturdays, this strategy leaves out the idea of equity. After all, it’s not just clubbers who are out after midnight. All of those service workers have to get home somehow, and many of them don’t get off until late. Besides, do we really want to be known as the city that has the first subway to retire each night? Even Baltimore’s Metro starts to close later than WMATA.
In its coverage of yesterday’s WMATA Board Meeting, Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert pondered the same conflict. The debate over closing times, he says, “risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don’t live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool.”
As this debate unfolds in D.C., it certainly allows me to appreciate New York’s system, warts and all. Ours might not look as nice as the Metro’s vaults. It certainly isn’t as clean as D.C.’s system with its draconian enforcement of food and beverage limits. But it keeps running late. Most routes are covered by more than one train so even as, say, B train headways reach 10 or 12 minutes after the evening rush, that a D will show up makes the wait shorter. Even the R train with limited off-peak headways is still supposed to arrive every 12 minutes.
In New York — as in D.C. — too many people work off hours for the subway to shut down. The City that Never Sleeps can’t afford to see its transportation lifeline cut off. That does mean more inconvenient changes for necessary maintenance and a less clean system, but ultimately, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.