Anyone who has lived in Washington D.C. for any amount of time is sure to have heard griping – or has griped themselves – about getting around the area.
The complaints might be about traffic, Metrorail escalator outages, single-tracking trains, late buses, or many other topics. These are all anecdotal examples of problems and inefficiencies within our transportation grid, but what we really need are metrics and data to evaluate our transportation systems and decide where to make capital investments.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, or just “Metro”) strategic plan, called Momentum, defines success by certain operational factors including bus and rail timeliness and escalator uptime (both are deemed successful/“green” at 92 percent). (Similarly, the Virginia Railway Express looks closely at on-time performance and parking lot utilization rates to define success.)
However, WMATA outlines one strategic objective that is immeasurable: “Increasing service and capacity to relieve overcrowding and meet future demand.” The Momentum plan does not actually offer any metrics to support that end goal.
A 2009 Transportation Research Board study showed that the Metro’s Orange Line/I-66 corridor yielded a whopping 52 percent transit-patronage rate, which compares public transit usage to adjacent freeway usage. To put that in perspective, the next two highest figures in the study came in from New Haven/I-95 and San Francisco/Route 24 at 35 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
If we look only at the statistics above, we see that Metro is operating at peak conditions, and the D.C. region is setting the pace in terms of getting people to choose public transit rather than freeways (at least on the Orange Line).
Now consider traffic in D.C. According to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report, D.C. ranks number one in terms of hours delayed per auto commuter,” at 67 hours per year. This conservatively equates to a cost of nearly $1,400 per commuter. In terms of total wasted hours, the region comes in 4th – at 179,331,000 wasted hours – compared with New York City’s number-one ranking of 544,063,000 wasted hours.
When each of these metrics is considered on its own merit, it tells a misleading story as to the health of regional mobility and public transportation, which can lead to misappropriated investments that could have been spent better elsewhere. The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering adopting urban performance metric principles that would include more multimodal corridor-based analyses that look at the big picture instead of standard operating metrics. Urban centers around the world, including Houston, New York, and Southern California, have already begun to adopt mobility-management techniques to better track transportation demand and performance.
As our transit agencies and regional planning offices evaluate long-term strategic options, the DOT, or at least the agencies in the D.C. region, should develop a comprehensive scorecard that looks beyond standard operational metrics. Regional-based performance indicators and coordinated planning would better serve the big-picture goal of increasing regional mobility by increasing transit accessibility and reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road.