Congestion King

The Texas Transportation Institute has released its annual urban mobility report, and Washington, DC once again takes the crown of wasting the most time and fuel per commuter. Though the urban mobility report makes some questionable claims about the congestion relief provided by urban transit, not even DC’s expensive Metro rail system has kept traffic from costing the average auto commuter $1,400 a year in wasted time and fuel.

Of course, one reason DC is number one in congestion is that, with the growth of government during the recent recession, it has enjoyed far more job growth than most other major urban areas. Yet, if rail transit really were such a good way to relieve congestion, it should have been able to absorb that growth.

Instead, the rail system operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is actually losing capacity as maintenance shortfalls force the agency to run smaller trains and those trains become less reliable. Last summer, when passengers on the Green line were stranded and had to walk along the rail line in the summer heat, WMATA promised that the agency would improve its safety procedures and keep people better informed.

Yet just last week, several rush-hour trains on the Green line were again stranded for hours without power. Temperatures on underground trains quickly rose to 90 degrees or more, leading some passengers to get sick and others to force the doors open so they could escape. One passenger reported that the only message they heard from WMATA was, “At this time, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING, I repeat, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING.” How reassuring.

WMATA claims to have a solution to its woes: a 30-year strategic plan. That should take care of all those pesky cracked rails, smokey tunnels, and non-functioning elevators and escalators. Except that the strategic plan is more a puff piece about how wonderful Metro is and much more wonderful it would be if only it had a lot more money. The plan calls for spending $1 billion a year that the agency doesn’t have on maintenance that it isn’t doing, plus another $1.24 billion a year increasing the system’s capacity.

Proposed improvements include two new crossings of the Potomac River. Operationally, the new crossings make sense. The two existing crossings are at or near capacity, and the opening of the misbegotten Silver line to Tyson’s Corners and Dulles will actually reduce the capacity of the Blue and Orange lines to carry passengers since some of the Rosslyn-Foggy Bottom tunnel’s capacity will have to be diverted to the Silver line.

Fiscally, the plan is nothing more than a pipe dream. Just what DC needs: more rail lines that WMATA can’t afford to maintain.

The advantage of trains is that they are supposed to move so many more people than any other mode. Is this true? The Antiplanner’s scrutiny of train schedules indicates that no line ever runs more than 20 trains an hour. Station platforms limit trains to eight cars, and though the “crush capacity” of each car is supposed to be 180 standees in addition to 70 seated passengers, a more realistic load is about 150 people total. That means each of the three trunk lines–Red, Blue/Orange, and Yellow/Green–can carry no more than about 24,000 passengers per hour. This is supported by WMATA reports that the most number of riders carried per quarter-hour on this year’s inauguration day was about 17,000, which means 68,000 per hour or about 22,666 per each of the three lines.

While 24,000 people an hour is a lot compared with a single freeway lane carrying 2,000 cars an hour with a rush-hour average of 1.1 persons per car, there is no reason why freeway lanes have to be limited to cars. A freeway lane dedicated to buses is capable of moving 1,200 buses per hour safely spaced six bus lengths apart. If WMATA used 80-seat, double-decker buses such as those used in Las Vegas, that lane could move 96,000 people per hour, without even counting standees.

On reaching downtown, the buses could disperse to various streets, any of which are capable of moving at least 160 buses an hour (40 buses per hour per stop with four designated stops every two blocks). That means directing buses down three or four north-south streets and four east-west streets, allowing most riders to find a stop close to their actual destination.

The Washington DC region could spend tens of billions of dollars and many years building new subway lines that would provide a modest increase in the rail system’s capacity. Or it could spend a small fraction of that amount of money and time on new buses running on high-occupancy toll lanes that would more than double the system’s capacity. Unfortunately, the political momentum created when DC made the mistake of building rail in the first place will probably doom it to doing the former. The result will be a lot of money spent but little congestion relief.

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13 thoughts on “Congestion King

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    The advantage of trains is that they are supposed to move so many more people than any other mode. Is this true? The Antiplanner’s scrutiny of train schedules indicates that no line ever runs more than 20 trains an hour. Station platforms limit trains to eight cars, and though the “crush capacity” of each car is supposed to be 180 standees in addition to 70 seated passengers, a more realistic load is about 150 people total.

    Perhaps more to the point, Metro’s traction power system that powers the third rail was deliberately undersized to “save money” (I use the term loosely) when the system was constructed between 1969 to 2001.

    That means that even though the station platforms were designed to accommodate 8 railcar consists, the traction power system on most of the system simply cannot currently handle 8 car trains on 2 minute headways.

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    Jardinero1 wrote:

    In trying times such as these, I always ask myself, “What would MegaBus do?”

    Prior to the Metrorail system starting to open in 1976 (the initial segment was very short, the Red Line between Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North), there were express buses that provided a one-seat ride from many parts of the Washington area to the Monumental Core area (where so many of the jobs are located).

    As the rail system opened up, those express buses were eliminated or turned-back at rail stations.

    Today, only a few of them remain (though for residents of the counties outside the Metro compact, most of them have express bus service that takes them to downtown D.C.).

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner also wrote:

    not even DC’s expensive Metro rail system has kept traffic from costing the average auto commuter $1,400 a year in wasted time and fuel.

    Remember that the Metro cannot serve most circumferential trips (which frequently involve travel on the often-congested Capital Beltway).

    It was designed to serve radial trips.

  4. LazyReader

    It begs the question if Washington had not dismantled it’s street cars, would they have been viable. Certainly they would be cheaper than underground subways with no tunnels to build. Most of DC’s traffic can be blamed on I-95 and the influx of out of city workers coming each day. There is an impending transportation melt-down in DC that has surely impacted the future well-being of the nation’s capital. DC is a commuter town with more jobs than residents so to fill the labor demand, the employees rush from neighboring areas some as far as 50 miles away. There’s not much DC can do to fix it’s traffic but it’s not impossible. The RAND Corporation was consulted for Los Angeles traffic studies. It doesn’t take a huge reduction in traffic to make a difference; even 2-3% fewer cars on the roads could reduce congestion by 10-11%. But these reductions are usually only temporary. Expand rapid bus transit with bus-only lanes on arterial streets and express freeway service in the high-occupancy/toll lanes. Prioritize and fund investments in upgraded signal timing and control. Offer and aggressively market deeply discounted transit passes to employers, who would purchase passes for all employees, allowing those who commute by transit to ride at reduced cost. Bolster outreach efforts to assist businesses in promoting ridesharing programs.

  5. JOHN1000

    “Of course, one reason DC is number one in congestion is that, with the growth of government during the recent recession, it has enjoyed far more job growth than most other major urban areas..”

    At the height of the recession, I would drive thru formerly empty areas in MD and VA and see nothing but construction cranes and whole new towns being built. The building going on is unbelievable. No surprise that it got more congested.

  6. bennett

    Jardinero1 asks:

    In trying times such as these, I always ask myself, “What would MegaBus do?”

    The answer is simple. They would run intercity buses. Would help out those commuting within DC one bit.

  7. Jardinero1

    Everybody keeps answering my question. But it does not mean what they think it means. It is a variation of the “What would Jesus do?’ meme you hear so much in the evangelical south where I live. I thought it was a funny variation because of the Anti-Planners cultish infatuation with MegaBus.

  8. redline

    You have to admit, though, that some of those Metro stations are just beautiful. And the tunnel entrances that are shaped in a big “M” are kinda cool, too. I wonder how much extra they had to pay for these fine srtsy touches.

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