Budget cuts to D.C. Metro could alter long-term travel patterns in the region, says expert
Closing stations and reducing service hours may help the D.C. Metro system’s financial hardships in the short-term but those changes will also hamper efforts to win back customers next year as the region emerges from the pandemic, says a Virginia Tech expert.
Virginia Tech urban transportation expert Ralph Buehler says the current Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority budget proposals to eliminate weekend rail service, close stations, and reduce service hours would severely impact area commuters and modes of transportation in the region.
"Metro's budget proposal makes sense from a current financial perspective and current ridership, however, cutting service during a time when the region is trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic does not make sense from a transportation perspective,” says Buehler.
“The region will begin to transition towards a new normal for transportation in 2021. As vaccines become available, people will feel safe riding the Metro again. We’ll begin to see an increase in ridership as people resume their commutes to work and offices begin to reopen.”
Buehler says that if Metro service is poor (30 minute wait time between trains) or non-existent (closed stations) and bus lines are eliminated, the transit agency will have a hard time winning back customers.
“Metro and bus service must be convenient to lure customers back. Unattractive service will make winning back customers difficult, if not impossible,” says Buehler. “Metro clearly needs help from local, state, and federal governments to bridge this crucial time of recovery from COVID-19. Governments have helped the automobile industry many times, now it is crucial to support the transit industry.”
“When COVID-19 numbers begin to decline in the region, Metro needs subsidies to offer attractive service to win back customers. Service can be adjusted a year later if ridership does not come back. Unattractive service, however, will guarantee that fewer people will ride trains and buses,” says Buehler.
“Metro is a sustainable mode of transport causing fewer emissions than driving. It’s also the mode of transportation for many car-free and carless individuals. People want to ride metro if it is attractive. However, once people have made permanent adjustments on how they get around, because of poor or non-existent service, it will be hard to win them back for busses or trains.”
Ralph Buehler is a professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of International and Public Affairs at Virginia Tech in the greater Washington, D.C. metro region. His research areas focus on understanding individual travel behavior and the sustainability of transport systems in urban areas. Watch a video interview about how cycling is on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic here.
To secure an interview, contact Shannon Andrea in the media relations office at email@example.com or 703-399-9494. Find additional Virginia Tech expertise related to COVID-19 here.