by Patrick Sheehan
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is a complex system that relies heavily on a local and regional bus fleet, subway, and paratransit system to move its citizens throughout Maryland, the District of Columbia and northern Virginia. As with most transit systems, the last two years have been a challenge for this region, with passenger levels on the subway and bus down by 85 percent and revenues from the jurisdictions that fund WMATA down by another 75 percent. Without recent transit subsidies, WMATA was looking at staff layoffs and the closure of up to 22 subway stations. With the receipt of recent transit subsidies, these dire consequences have been averted until July of 2023. After that WMATA will need to be a self-sufficient, thriving transit property that can provide reliable, efficient service.
Like most transit properties, part of WMATA’s challenge is trying to predict how quickly people will be returning to the office so they can have sufficient bus and rail service to meet the needs of its customers. A tool designed by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), called the APTA Ridership Dashboard, tracks the demand for public transit and estimates ridership in real time. This dashboard can be utilized by any transit property in the U.S. Currently it measures overall ridership nationally at 54 percent, compared to the same time in 2019 (pre-pandemic). This dashboard will help all transit properties, including WMATA, to predict what resources they need to have available to meet ridership expectations and have those resources available.
Throughout the industry, transit properties are expecting to see ridership increase slightly in the fall, followed by irregular growth with unpredictable changes in service levels. Service flexibility based on customer needs may be the new norm. Emphasis on the quality of trips may replace quantity, and values may replace trip volume when essential services are being evaluated. Returning to pre-pandemic service levels will not be a quick process. Bringing back ridership means that the industry needs to be intentional. It is expected to take time to ramp up resources and implement changes to reflect this new paradigm. Many systems, including WMATA, are expecting to see a slight reduction in telework with perhaps weekend fares or free transit starting on Friday and extending through Monday.
It will be critical that transit systems understand what resources they need to have on the street to be successful, and communicate these plans to their customers. In Washington, discussions are under way to implement a new fare equity system for underserved populations. Community partnerships are being established to provide on-demand service for late-night workers while extending subway hours to ensure transit availability for D.C. nightlife. Meeting the needs of the customer is what industry means when it states it needs to be intentional.
In addition, WMATA has taken the last 18 months to upgrade its facilities, improve Wi-Fi availability within the subway, procure a new fleet of subway cars and paratransit vehicles to attract and re-engage their customer base to use a system that is safe, accessible, and reliable. Many other transit properties are doing similar things to attract and retain customers. During our Get Up and Get Moving campaign, get out and try your transit system. Give them a chance to serve you.