Housing Complex

WMATA Report: Metro Is Undercrowded


In my lengthy defense yesterday of the city's proposed changes to the Height Act, I touched on the question of infrastructure. Critics have charged that allowing taller buildings will require expensive infrastructure upgrades to handle the additional capacity. I countered that our infrastructure is already overtaxed, and that the additional revenue from taller buildings will help pay for the upgrades we already need. Among other things, I wrote that Metro is "miserably overcrowded during rush hour."

That line prompted an email from the District Department of Transportation's Steve Strauss, who pointed me to a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority report from last month on the state of Metro. According to the report, our Metro system not only isn't overburdened during rush hour; it's actually undercrowded.

WMATA's optimal number of passengers per car during rush hour is 100, with a minimum of 80 and a maximum of 120 within the target range. On the notoriously jam-packed Red Line at Metro Center during the p.m. rush, there were only 73 passengers per car on average in March, and 74 in April and May—below the minimum. Even the stations that featured the most crowded trains—Court House, Dupont Circle, and Farragut North in select months—only reached an average of 98 passengers per car.

Here's the full chart from the report:


What do you think? Would we be better served with 20 to 60 percent more people on Metro trains at the busiest stations during rush hour?

Photo via Flickr user The Last Cookie

  • Kyle

    If they want that, why don't they train people how to properly sit and stand on the metro?

  • brett

    I'm curious how they came up with that data. Was it the "counters" we heard about before that weren't paying attention? and likely just making up numbers.. Data can be useful at planning, but only if it's accurate.

  • Fed JD

    I call BS. I've never seen a WMATA employee with a clicker.

  • PCC

    Even without clickers, WMATA can impute the routes that passengers take between entry point and exit point; very few of us will take the non-optimal route. (Why the cynicism about this obvious point?)

    Perhaps much of the under-used capacity comes from the region's east/west imbalance, with trains going off full in one direction and empty in the other. New (already approved, and in some cases, already under construction!) development at the western edges of Metro will only make that worse.

  • David

    The average number will also mask imbalances from trains stopping or starting at non-endpoint stations--for example, I will regularly see people avoid getting on a PM rush hour red line train to Silver Spring in order to jam themselves onto one going all the way to Glenmont.

  • Janine

    As a rider that does a daily commute between Ballsoton and Farragut North, I cann bologna on this report. I purposely stay late (and arrive late) to avoid the heaviest of train burdens, but all too often you end up too close for comfort with many of your fellow passengers. The rides are uncomfortable and frankly unsafe, as many in the crowd have nothing to hold onto; add to that the spotty breaking that sends some people flying and its a recipe for disaster. So NO, you can't fit any more on the trains.

  • MLD

    Yes I buy it; many times I will get on at Farragut North during evening rush and find that the first car (or two cars) has plenty of standing room and some seats, while the middle cars are full of people who can't figure out how to walk down the platform.

    Of course, it would help if six-car trains could actually stop in the middle of the platform.

  • mike

    Those numbers clearly dont factor in turnstyle jumping youth and allows one person per seat like subway royalty. People should double up in seats! Ignore all bus crowds...

  • Brett

    Does it seem odd that they chose March-May? I feel like summer time is possibly the worst because of intern and tourist season on top of normal commuting. You also have the hot car issue where one car may be overstuffed, while another is almost empty.

    The weeks of the government shutdown, we already know that ridership was down, so that's not relevant from an 'average' perspective.

    I think their data does show that Metro ridership has declined over time, I just know that the Orange Crush is fairly palpable, especially when trains offload because of door issues.

  • Matthew

    This also doesn't take into account the unloading/loading problems at some of the busiest stations. Every morning during my commute nearly the entire car unloads at Chinatown and, because on the red line the six-car trains stop way up from the end of the platform, there is always a big crown pushing to get into the last one or two pairs of doors. Several times I've seen people not even have time to exit the car before the doors close, let alone pack another 50-60 people back on. If their numbers are correct, I don't see how the system could cope with their optimal passenger count.

  • MsKat

    I call BS on this-the only work commutes I ever have that are undercrowded are the ones during the week between Christmas and New Year's day. The rest of the time it is plenty crowded, standing room only, and sometimes squishing room only. Metro needs to get over themselves and work on their poor service.

  • The Fingerman

    I wonder if this isn't a byproduct of the weird way Metro sometimes has trains run--where there'll be a gap of 10 minutes on the Red Line in the afternoon rush and then there will be three in five minutes. Therefore, one train probably has 150 per car, and the next two have about 20 per car.

  • R. Warren Gill III

    This evening after work, I got on the Red Line at 6:15pm at Metro Center in the direction of Shady Grove. I was on the second car of the train. I didn't count, so I can't give exact figures. But I'd guess there were about 40 people on the train. There was no one standing, and almost everyone had a row of seats to themselves. I saw the first car of the train as it was entering the station; there were less people on that train. In my experience going to and from work during both morning and evening rush hours, the distribution of riders across the cars is not equal. There might have been 40 people in my car, but 130 two cars behind. The /train/ could handle many, many more people, but that car with 130 could not.

    This isn't to let WMATA off the hook; they do need to figure out a means to spread the ridership across the trains. It's pointless to have nearly empty cars on the same train with over packed cars. Completely thinking aloud, and not committing to the idea: perhaps allowing passage between cars would alleviate this issue?

  • MetroSUCKS

    "Even without clickers, WMATA can impute the routes that passengers take between entry point and exit point; very few of us will take the non-optimal route. (Why the cynicism about this obvious point?)"

    You've got to be kidding us? This implies that Metro has the math talent, programming ability, and computer power to do such calculations. NONE of which they have.

    They probably can't even count to ten. You expect them to make use of this data? I doubt they're even collecting it in any meaningful/useful way. That data is probably dropped every night when the system shuts down (I doubt their crap could run for more than a day without a reboot)...

  • tntdc

    What this shows is how out of touch Metro PR is. Obviously the quoted person has never tried to get into Farragut at rush hour, much less onto a train. As Janine says above, that station is the pits. Couldn't be worse.

  • tom

    Can't speak for every route, but I commute from Eastern Market to Farragut West everyday. That part of the metro system is not anywhere near overcrowded. Granted I always walk up to the first car, but I rarely have an issue finding a seat.

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  • Mark

    As a rush hour commuter between Glenmont & MetroCenter / Federal Triangle I suggest that there are a number of small solutions that Metro could do to make things better:

    1) Have the 6-car and 8-car trains always stop at the same locations on the platform AND mark the platform locations as to where the doors would line up. That way we would know where to stand/not stand to avoid blocking the doors.

    2) Designate the front & rear doors as exit only and the middle doors as enter only. This would force/encourage riders to move through-out the car instead of blocking the door where they just boarded.

    3) Have customer service reps in the stations on the platforms training (assisting) riders in moving down the platform to the end cars, thus distributing the passenger load throughout the entire train.

  • Daniel

    @MetroSUCKS - you have a point. If Metro can't remember when Daylight Savings ends/begins (both times in the past, by the way) and closes the system and or stations an hour earlier than scheduled, I'm not sure how I can trust them to count passengers. It will be interesting to see if they remember to back their clocks this weekend.

  • Rik

    I often see 4, yes four, Metro employees at Rosslyn in the morning with clipboards. They all stand together at the end of the platform at the lead car. If they are counting people, this is a highly inaccurate count because the lead car usually has the least number of people.

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  • Eponymous

    Many of the people commenting that this is unrealistic and stating which stations they commute between are on the busiest portions of the system. I question Metro's ability to tabulate the number of riders correctly just because it's Metro, but I can tell you that the east fork of the red line could easily accommodate MANY more riders at rush hour. Planned development at Takoma, Fort Totten, Brookland, and Rhode Island will likely change that, though.

  • JP

    Here is my breakdown of the orange and red lines during peak rush hour:

    Standing-room only, bearable -- 70%
    Overcrowded, unbearable -- 20%
    undercrowded -- 10%

    I really don't care what the average rider count per car is. Everyone that rides the metro has at least a dozen horrific commuting stories and those experiences in my opinion far outweigh any positive ones.

  • Jack Jackson

    Do these counts account for crowded trains due to service outages? maintenance? special events?

    what about frequency of trains? 6 car vs 8 car?

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  • http://westnorth.com PCC

    @"SUCKS": Thanks for your constructive contributions to society's advancement. FWIW, since you're so brilliant at math, maybe you can work wonders just by downloading the data yourself:

  • dave

    WMATA is clearly reporting the average per car over the full 4 hours of each rush hour and is including the outbound trains near the end of the lines which are usually nearly empty. This is great is you choose to commute near the beginning or end of the rush hour period or if you do a reverse commute from the center to the edge, but if you to the regular commute near the peak of rush hour, then it is a whole different story.

  • evan

    Honestly, after riding in the underground in London, I'd definitely not consider the metro overcrowded. I think I've only see maybe twice out of the last 50 rides someone have to push in to get into a car. The bigger problem is that the train doors are too small for the number of passengers. earlier this week I ended up on a train that was probably right at the top end due to a problem with the previous train. So it ended up double loaded. The big problem was getting off the train. The conductor was starting to ring the bell but there were 3 or 4 people ahead of me and nobody had boarded. (didn't help that the lady in front of me thought was pushing her out, something that is fairly normal on London underground.)

    The big thing is metro needs to get rid of barriers to getting on and off cars, and maybe even move to the first few seats being foldups to allow more passengers to get on and off the train.

  • Chris

    These numbers are averages. So for Courthouse to average 98% optimal capacity over the 4.5 hours of the morning commute, it must be very overcrowded during the busiest hour or two.

    My guess would be that it is close to 50% capacity from 5-7 AM. So think about how overcrowded it must be from 7-9:30 to get an average of 98%

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