We Can’t Shut Down An Entire Metro Line. Chicago Is The Wrong Example Here

We’ll get to Chicago in a bit.

The powers that be at D.C.’s Metro have proposed shutting down lines for months to conduct repairs. Unlike some Slate-pitch like crapola, this isn’t about a mild inconvenience–the entire Metro area will grind to a halt:

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 ignores 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 [weekday] traffic…

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.

And if you don’t believe the Mad Biologist, then how about a planner:

BRT bridges sound good in concept but in practice you’d need a fantastically large number of buses to make it work. Metro can theoretically handle 25,000 people per direction per hour (26 trains/hour x 8 cars x 120 people). Even if you’re running articulated buses (up to 105 passengers) that works out to a bus every 15 seconds.

The math gets easier outside of the peak hour but we’re still talking ten standard buses (up to 70 passengers each) to process a full six-car train which absolutely happens in the evenings (I’ve taken plenty of full Red trains out of Gallery Place after 8pm on weeknights).

One of the idiotic comparisons that has been made is the shutdown of Chicago’s Red Line. But Chicago’s Red Line is very different. First, it’s only ten miles long, whereas D.C.’s Red Line is nearly 32 miles long and winds through two states* and three counties, and the Orange Line is over 26 miles long (the shortest line is the Yellow, which is fifteen miles long). Second, it’s a straight line on a grid. There are multiple ways to replace service with buses and cars: you can run buses that follow the train, but also run additional buses a few blocks over (and cars can also follow these roads).

This is a critical difference as the Blue/Orange/Silver lines primarily serve Virginian commuters. There are four bridges that cross the Potomac, they’re not getting any wider, and they’re already overtaxed. There are no roads onto which additional bus and car traffic can spill, unless people start driving hovercraft.

The problem isn’t one of safety–though that’s the buzzword (safety also appeals to those ninnies who, at airports, want the full body cavity search–doing my part!). It’s cost. Shutting down the lines is cheaper than shutting down for long weekends and hiring extra crews to do the work.

But that option hasn’t been proposed (and it’s not clear that Virginia could ever get its shit together to pony up additional funding), so maybe it will take crashing the D.C. metro area transportation grid to get a response.

*On this blog, we refer to the District as a state.

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1 Response to We Can’t Shut Down An Entire Metro Line. Chicago Is The Wrong Example Here

  1. Peter Langley says:

    Chicago’s CTA Red Line is also paralleled by the Metra Electric Line about 1 mile east.

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