No, We Should Not Shut Down Entire Metro Lines–Or The Whole Metro

One of the advantages of falling behind in my blogging is that it occasionally provides an opportunity to knock down two stupid ideas in one post. In light of the D.C. Metro’s recent problems, including an all-day shutdown to conduct needed emergency repairs, there have been many proposals on how to fix D.C.’s transportation problems. Unfortunately, some of them are not very good.

The first is to shutdown entire lines for months to conduct repairs:

Wiedefeld needs more time to come up with a sane plan of course, but at this point WMATA needs to consider shutting down large portions of its rail system for a lot longer than a day. Several months may in fact be required for each line in order to perform complete safety and reliability overhauls. For an example of how this might work, look no further than Chicago. Back in 2013, the CTA made the controversial decision to shut down half of its Red Line route* for five full months in order to reconstruct its drainage system and fully replace 10 miles of aging tracks. Had CTA decided instead to do the work piecemeal in off-peak hours, residents would have been forced to live through four-plus years of limited service and construction hassle. The months-long shutdown was painful, but in the end the Red Line reopened on time, on budget, and able to offer vastly more reliable service.

Note the “Several months may.” Without knowing what the actual problems are, this might not be needed at all. For the record, I’ve argued that weekend shutdowns might be worth exploring. But we can’t shutdown entire lines for months on end. Metro is just too critical for weekday commutes.

Between 5am and 9:30am, the two Farragut Square stations alone have 30,000 people arriving, with the bulk (~70%) arriving between 7am and 9am. If we add McPherson Square and Metro Center to the mix, that’s another 26,000. If we assume that’s around 40,000 people every weekday morning between 7 – 9 am, it would be impossible to get that many people in by buses–even if we cleared all car traffic from the roads. It would be, if we assume fifty riders per bus, 400 buses in an hour in a very small area. The people who pulled off the Berlin airlift couldn’t make that work.

This also ignore that the Metro serves, during the weekday, as a commuter rail–if people without cars lose the Metro, many don’t have other options; the bus might not provide a realistic alternative*. Shutting down the Metro on the weekends might help, but it simply won’t work in terms of traffic.

But we travel from a bad idea to one by the Brookings Institution–get rid of MetroRail entirely and replace it with buses. No, really (boldface mine):

An analyst from the right-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute went so far as to suggest that Metro is dead, and it’s time to pull the plug in favor of bus rapid transit (BRT). But so did an analyst over at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, who suggested that rail – and maybe even buses too – should be scrapped for private sector solutions coming into widespread use, including ride-sharing (like Uber) and driverless vehicles.

“Why isn’t now the time to ask whether we should keep investing in this system?” asks Thomas A. Firey, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. “Any reasonable metric shows it’s not a good form of transit compared to other ones. ”

If Firey had his way, he said he would close Metro and fill its tunnels with dirt.

Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also thinks public subways and bus systems have been so mismanaged for so long, it’s probably time to find alternatives.

“Both urban bus and urban rail are socially undesirable in most cities–that is, their operating and capital subsidies exceed benefits to users,” Winston said.

Both argue that Metro represents the transit option of yesteryear, and that the vast capital investments and operating subsidies that governments must plow into fixed rail systems no longer make sense compared with the flexibility and relatively low cost of BRT or ride-sharing and other innovations.

I’ll stop there and prevent further brain damage. Again, there is no way people could get downtown–or to places like Medical Center–with buses or with private ridesharing companies. The road grid can’t handle any more traffic.

We need a MetroRail that works–and that means local politicians and community groups will have to make oversight and funding a priority. This degeneration didn’t happen overnight, and fixing it will take time and effort.

*I don’t own a car and would probably have to get a monthly rental to get to work. This would run to thousands of dollars. I’m fortunate that I can afford this (though it’s a fucking waste of money), but many people really can’t.

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3 Responses to No, We Should Not Shut Down Entire Metro Lines–Or The Whole Metro

  1. jrkrideau says:

    Both urban bus and urban rail are socially undesirable in most cities
    What world does Winston live in? It certainly is not this one. This level of stupidity is painful to witness.

    Obviously he’s never been in London or Paris when they are under the threat of a transit strike.

  2. “public subways and bus systems have been so mismanaged for so long”

    And the solution is to get rid of it? How about getting rid of the incompetent politicians instead?

  3. Sam240 says:

    What Mathis (at CityLab) failed to realize was that the shuttles in Chicago didn’t have to go all the way downtown. Between the Loop and 63rd Street, the Green Line was operating 5/8 miles (or less) away from the closed Red Line, and was available as a substitute. South of 63rd Street, shuttles were run from various Red Line stops to the Green Line’s Garfield Station, which was far from the Loop.

    A list of service alternatives can be found at

    Washington doesn’t have the same type of redundancy. You could close the Red Line between Gallery Place and Ft. Totten, and replace it with a shuttle; the Ft. Totten-Glenmont section becomes a shuttle linking up to the Green and Yellow Lines. You could shut either the Blue Line from Pentagon to Rosslyn or the Yellow LIne from Pentagon to L’Enfant Plaza without too much trouble (too much being a relative term). But that’s about it; there’s no nearby Metro Service for any of the lines once you leave downtown. The alternate line isn’t present in case of closure.

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