DC Mythbusting: Metro’s Most Crowded

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DC has a great Metro system: it’s (generally) reliable, clean, fast, and connects many major destinations in the city.  But we love to complain about our commutes– being crammed like sardines on the train, being stuck in Metro stations so full that you can’t even get down the escalator to the platform, and having buses pass right by your stop because they’re already packed to the brim with riders.  Experiences like these make many people think that they’ve got it worse than anyone else in the area– that they’re stuck riding the busiest line, getting off at the busiest station, or riding the busiest bus.  But there’s a lot of misinformation out there about Metro’s most crowded lines, stations, and buses, so I’m going to set things straight this week.

Most Crowded Metro Line: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard Orange line riders complain that they’re stuck riding the busiest line.  Most of these Metro riders are on the train between Ballston and L’Enfant Plaza, which definitely is the busiest section of the Orange line, with people packed into Metro trains that are sometimes too full to even board.  But does the Orange line really have it the worst?

Metro Ridership by Line, May 2008 (Source: 2009 Metro Media Guide)

Metro Ridership by Line, May 2008 (Source: 2009 Metro Media Guide, Average Weekday Ridership)

Nope, that’s an honor that goes to Red line riders.  The Red line actually carries 48% more riders than the Orange line every day.  And you Blue, Green, and Yellow line riders?  Don’t even start complaining.  Even if you think that you can’t get any more crammed into Metro rail cars than you are, the Red line has it twice as bad as you.

Most Crowded Metro Station: I know that I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the number of people in certain stations at certain times: Saturday afternoons at Smithsonian, weekday evenings at Farragut West, morning rush hour at L’Enfant Plaza, or weekends at 2:30 AM at Woodley Park-Adams Morgan.  But what’s the busiest station of all?

Busiest Metro Stations (Source: 2009 Metro Media Guide)

Busiest Metro Stations (Source: 2009 Metro Media Guide, Average Weekday Ridership)

Well, to answer this you need to remember that Metro is primarily a commuter system, and that it attracts commuters from all over the region.  For that reason, Union Station is by far the busiest station in the system.  Think about it: commuter rail transfers, Amtrak transfers, and a bunch of major offices within walking distance to the station. After that, the rest of the top ten stations are all in high-density, office-heavy areas. Not until the 14th busiest station, Shady Grove, or 16th busiest station, Vienna, do you get more residential stations, and Smithsonian is number 18.  So unless you’re trying to shove your way through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at Union Station or Metro Center during rush hour, you’re not getting any sympathy from me.

Most Crowded Bus Line: Even though the Metrorail system gets the majority of the focus in the region, there’s a strong Metrobus system out there too.  Metrobus carries over 460,000 people per weekday, compared to Metrorail’s 747,000.  So Metrobus lines can get pretty busy too.  Some of the ones I ride regularly, like the 42 on Connecticut Avenue or the 52/53/54 on 14th Street, have sometimes been so packed with people that I can’t even get on the bus.  But what are the busiest lines?

Busiest Bus Lines (Source: 2009 Metro Media Guide, Average Daily Ridership)

Busiest Bus Lines (Source: 2009 Metro Media Guide, Average Daily Ridership)

The Pennsylvania Avenue 30′s buses are, by far.  They connect Capitol Hill with downtown and continue to Georgetown and up Wisconsin Avenue.  There are a couple surprises in the top ten: two Maryland-based bus routes, the C2/C4 and Q2, don’t even venture into the District, they just feed into Metro stations.  Luckily, the top ten routes generally have more frequent buses running, so if you can’t get onto that first one that is already standing room only, there’s bound to be one with room coming by shortly (well, we’d hope).

The Circulator isn’t run by WMATA– it’s a DDOT deal– so ridership statistics aren’t compiled in the same way.  But their monthly ridership figures, which are not broken down by line, do show that ridership has grown considerably.  Anecdotally, we know that the Union Station-Georgetown route is typically standing room only and packed to the brim just about any weekday between 6 PM and 8 PM, so that’s gotta be up there.

Crappiest Commute Ever: So if you ride the Red line to Union Station, then walk a few blocks south to catch a 30-series bus over to Georgetown, you’ve officially got the most crowded commute of just about anyone.  Feel free to complain about how you were on the most packed train ever on the red line, then stuck in a mass of wall-to-wall people at Union Station, then couldn’t get on several completely-packed 36 buses.  And if that is actually your commute, you’ve got my sympathy.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

22 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Metro’s Most Crowded

  1. It would be absolutely fascinating to know what the platform-square-footage-to-riders ratio is at those busiest stations. I’ll see if I can get Metro to give us some numbers!

  2. To compare the Red and Orange line without considering the number of actual trains and train cars used to move the people you can’t put a picture to which line is more crowded. The Red line does not share a track with another line as the orange line does through the heart of the city, which limits the number of trains that can be run. Yes more people take the Red line, but which line has a higher usage per train car?

  3. @Dave The Red line uses 278 rail cars to carry 276,489 passengers, giving an average rate of 994 passengers per car per day. The Orange line uses 198 rail cars to carry 186,817 passengers, giving an average rate of 943 passengers per car per day. The Red line is still more crowded.

  4. What about crowd density during various times of the day? I have the feeling the orange line is much more concentrated into rush hour.

  5. One point I think that may be missed is this: my perception is that the Red Line’s ridership is a bit more evenly distributed than the Orange Line’s ridership.

    That is, my guess would be that, for people coming from outside the city in the morning (and going back in the evening), there’s probably a pretty good split of people coming from the Glenmont and Shady Grove branches. Assuming most of those people are getting off downtown, there’s a good chance that many of the people from those two branches aren’t on the train at the same time (e.g., if they all get off at Metro Center).

    For the Orange Line, though, my guess is the vast majority of the ridership comes from one direction — Vienna inwards. So the majority of Orange Line riders *would* be on the same train at the same time.

    Basically, this is a long way to say that both sides may very well be right — the Red Line has more riders, but the Orange Line may be more “crowded.”

  6. Shannon, is that 198 trips or 198 physical rail cars? If it is physical, do cars on the red line make the same amount of trips as cars on the orange line? That would seem to be the more important number to do that math with.

    If you have 10 rail cars on both lines, but they do 5 trips on the orange and 4 trips on the red, then you have 50 instances (trips) of cars on red and 40 on orange. (Purely hypothetical made up numbers obviously).

  7. @Ashley and KB, you both bring up the same point that I unfortunately can’t verify with the publicly-available WMATA data. But I think that logically you’re right– it seems like the Red line is more “balanced” than the Orange line, in both time of travel and direction of travel.

  8. I think the misconception may be the density of Orange line folks on the different ends of the line. The Maryland side of the line isn’t necessarily part of the ‘Orange Crush’ that happens in Northern VA.

    Additionally, interesting to see that the X2 is the busiest un-grouped bus line. Makes a good case for the street car line under construction.

  9. @Karl That is physical rail cars, I think. I’m not sure on the number of trips per line– I haven’t seen that data publicly released by WMATA. But my gut is that the Orange line, since it has to share a track with Blue line trains, runs less frequently but longer trains (they’ve got more 8-car trains than any other line).

    To anyone wondering about where all this data came from, check out the 2009 Metro Media Guide. Pages 13-18 provide lots of interesting numbers.

  10. As someone who rides both the Red Line and the Orange Line every single day, I can say without hesitation that the Red Line trains from Takoma in to Metro Center are always significantly more crowded than the trains from Metro Center to Ballston in the morning (and vice versa, on the way home). I have no clear idea how “inbound” trains on both lines compare, however . . .

  11. Unfortunately, for the sake of this “study”, that is the against rush hour. In the mornings, the vast majority of the bulk is from Ballston to Metro Center.

  12. Nate’s comment is interesting– regardless of what the numbers say, what are your perceptions of the worst, most packed Metro stations/lines?

    I for one hated my standing-room-only Orange line commute from Ballston to Farragut West when I lived in VA. It was a somewhat-regular event to not even be able to get down to the platform at Farragut West in the evenings because it was so packed with people that the station manager had shut down the escalators for safety reasons.

  13. Agree w/ those who are saying that “crowded” and “dense” aren’t synonyms. Dense means people per area. Crowded means the ability of the infrastructure to handle its density. The most dense line may not necessarily be the most crowded.

    Anyway, interesting stats nonetheless.

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  15. Karl- Ballston riders have the option of taking an ART bus or Metrobus down Glebe to the 16x buses on Columbia Pike to Pentagon City instead. Or take the same buses that terminate at Crystal City metro stop.

    The Clarendon buses run in two directions, away from the Orange line as well as towards it.

  16. Also worth considering… I think the red line takes more people shorter distances. So the number of people may be more, but they may not be on the train for as long – resulting in less crowding? Could be wrong, but just a thought without delving into the numbers you provided.

    And as someone who used to do the Vienna to Metro Center commute, the time spent on the Orange line certainly seems longer than my more recent Union to Bethesda commute. So time spent in crowding without any way to move may be longer on the Orange as well. At least with the Red there is more frequent turnover and chance of better positioning!

  17. This is a great article. The graph on the busiest stations streams that the two Farragut stations should have been one as originally planned. But no, the statue of the admiral just couldn’t be moved for any amount of time!

    And as an Orange line rider, but in the MD direction, trust me, the Red Line is ALOT busier. I normally can get a seat on both my ride to and from work; some days I get two seats to myself. The only reason the Orange line comes close to the red line is because of the VA area you all mention.

  18. i remember when the 2 green lines were connected at fort totten and people were all the sudden complaining about how crowded it got and how people had to actually STAND.

    hahhaha. i was a redliner at the time and just thought, lord, i’m lucky to get ON the train at rush hour.

    i havent taken the red at rush hour since 2002 or so, and it was crowded as hell then, i’m sure its way way worse now.

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  21. I’m with Brian – this is a fantastic article. Thank you for posting! I love reading stuff like this, and the charts/graphs are great.

  22. If you think the red line is crowded, try riding the 6 train in Manhattan any time between 6am and 11pm. As someone who commuted on the 6 train for 2 years and now rides the red line in DC, I can say that DC straphangers have no idea how good they have it.