As Metro works to sell the public on the necessity of spending billions to expand its rail system in the coming decades, the transit authority is also trying to get the most out of its existing capacity, especially on the eastern side of the system, a project whose price tag is in the millions, not billions. That's because building sidewalks is a lot cheaper than building underground tunnels and new rail lines.
Regional transportation planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments are launching a study to determine how to make 25 “underutilized” Metro stations more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, work that overlaps with Metro’s research into exploiting excess capacity during the reverse commute: morning rush hour trains heading into D.C. are usually packed; trains heading out of the city into the suburbs are often empty by comparison. The reason is that many suburban stations, particularly in Prince George’s County, lack office development and employment centers within a mile’s walk or bike ride, and the areas surrounding some of these stations lack sidewalks and bike lanes, too.
The 25 stations were also picked because the vicinities are “anticipating employment growth in the near-term future and/or have significant transit-dependent populations living in close proximity,” according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB).
“In some cases there may be gaps in the sidewalks, maybe the crosswalks aren't as safe as they could be, or maybe there is a great grid system but there are no bike lanes to accommodate folks who might be able to ride their bike to work,” said the TPB’s Sarah Crawford.
“Some of the stations already have the employment in place, so let’s get the infrastructure in place to get people to those sites. At other stations there is potential for development, but before it actually opens let’s make sure infrastructure is in place so people can get to those jobs without automatically relying on their cars,” she added.
Eight of the stations are in the District of Columbia. Maryland's Prince George’s County has five, while Montgomery County has four. In Virginia, Fairfax County has three, Arlington and Alexandria have two each, and one is in Prince William County.
Increasing access could increase ridership
The lack of office development around the stations in Prince George’s County is a significant obstacle to drawing more reverse commuters. The immediate vicinity around Prince George’s Plaza station, for instance, has two large parking garages, some apartment complexes and a mall—but no large office buildings.
“Development is happening very slowly. They are building up but I don't feel, considering the population here, it is up to standard at all,” said Khiana Jenkins, a mother of four who lives nearby.
She sees the empty trains returning from D.C.
“Especially if you are coming back around lunch time, there is nobody on the train. Are we paying taxes on transit that is not being utilized?” Jenkins says.
Metro does not want to be in the business of running empty trains. The transit authority’s internal data show the way to exploit such excess capacity is to augment the pedestrian and biking networks around stations, even more so than to build more parking garages.
“We find that when we experiment with different levels of pedestrian access, we can increase ridership...by up to 15 percent and that is a very low cost way to get cars off the road and people onto the transit network,” said Shyam Kannan, who heads Metro’s office of planning.
Only 45 percent of the real estate is accessible by foot within a half-mile radius of Prince George’s Plaza, Kannan said. At the other end of the spectrum are stations in urban environments with plenty of sidewalks. Tenleytown station’s figure is 95 percent.
Another comparison that illustrates the importance of “walkability” is Takoma versus Landover, Kannan said. Takoma station on the Red Line has 6,000 riders per day, thanks to its robust sidewalks. But the Landover station, where only 20 percent of the real estate is accessible by foot within a half-mile radius, has only 2,000 riders per day despite the presence of “thousands of parking spaces.”
“In station areas where we have great pedestrian environments, even if they have much less parking, the ridership is much, much higher,” he said.
Studies first step in local collaboration
Both Metro and the TPB want their respective studies to provide a foundation for collaborative work with the jurisdictions where the 25 stations are located. Neither organization is in the real estate development or sidewalk/bike lane construction business. They cannot decide unilaterally where to locate the necessary office space near the stations and whether to build adequate walking/biking infrastructure for commuters once they get off their trains.
“The choice is clear,” Kannan said. “We can either keep pouring billions and billions of dollars into these new extensions of transit – Silver Line, Purple Line, streetcars – or we can build lots of sidewalks. We end up with the same result in terms of transit mode share.”
Metro is not going to reverse its ban against bringing bicycles aboard rush hour trains, but Kannan said the underused stations would benefit from bike share docks.