How Bad is the DC Metro?

By Ryan McNeely

Last night on Twitter, Tyler Cowen asked why the D.C. Metro was so bad. Matt jumped to Metro’s defense, arguing that while the D.C. system is not up to European standards like Berlin’s U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems, it is the “second best” system in the U.S. after New York City’s subway system.

For comparison, here’s the average weekday ridership per mile of the four largest metro systems in the U.S. (while D.C. has the second highest overall ridership, its “per mile” ridership is diluted because it goes far our into the suburbs):

weekday_ridership_(per_mile) (1)

Now, what makes for a good metro? Well, cost for one. New York and Chicago have a flat-rate fare of $2.25 for a single trip, while it looks like Boston costs a maximum of $2.00 with several discount options. D.C., by comparison, has fares ranging from $1.75 to $4.60 (!), and you somewhat annoyingly need to swipe at the beginning and end of the trip because the fare is based on distance — though I suppose an argument can be made that it’s prudent to charge suburban commuters more than the urbanities. What about service? Well NYC runs 24/7, and Chicago’s busiest lines run 24/7 with some others closing around 1:00am. Boston and D.C. seem very similar, with stations closing between 12:30 and 1:00am on weeknights. Then there’s the matter of fatalities — I only did a cursory search, but I don’t think NYC, Chicago, or Boston has had any fatalities involving passengers in trains since 1990. Meanwhile, eight passengers died in the horrible D.C. Red Line accident last year, and there have been many other close calls (an investigation concluded that a 2004 accident at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan stop would have killed at least 79 people if one of the trains involved had not been empty).

So, I think a case can be made using these few metrics that the D.C. metro is actually the worst of the biggest four in the U.S. But, still, I really enjoy it. I find the staff to be generally friendlier than the New York staff, which is difficult given the constant delays (yet another downside of the D.C. metro, but it’s hard to find comparables). I also think the curved vaulted ceilings are beautiful and make the underground feel much less claustrophobic, and the “no food or drink” policy really does contribute to the Metro’s very impressive cleanliness. Overall, the evidence is mixed, but I don’t think the ever-present D.C. Metro haters have conclusively made their case that the system sucks in the domestic context.