Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Profiles in Transit: Washington D.C. vs. Los Angeles

I had the opportunity to ride Washington D.C.'s Metrorail again on Saturday on a brief visit to the region for a loved one's funeral.  Established only in the late-1970s (within ten years of Los Angeles' subway and light-rail system) but boasting the second-largest ridership by both raw numbers and mode share among the nation's heavy rail mass transit systems, D.C.'s Metrorail has long intrigued me as a potential model for Los Angeles to follow. Riding Washington's subway system for the first time since I became more involved in transit planning issues gave me the unique opportunity to compare, contrast and reflect. My journey involved taking the Red Line from Bethesda to Gallery Place-Chinatown station and then transferring to the Yellow Line to Archives station, on the way, and taking the Blue Line from Smithsonian to Metro Center before switching to the Red Line to Bethesda station, on the way back. Below are some takeaways.

(Slightly outdated) Map of Washington D.C.'s Metrorail system

1. Cleanliness
This was the first distinction I noticed when I stepped onto the Red Line Train at Bethesda. Whereas the Los Angeles Red Line usually greets riders' nosebuds with malodorous wafts of urine, tobacco and/or weed, its Washington counterpart is bereft of unpleasant smells. Except for a couple stains on the carpets, the Red Line's railcars were also surprisingly spotless compared to a typical Red Line car in LA (with no visible litter). I personally suspect (though I could be wrong) that the D.C. system's cleanliness has something to do with the region's lack of a large population of chronic homeless. Also, the upholstery used for railcar seats was not only more comfortable than the fabric used for seats on Los Angeles' trains but seemed to be less prone to retaining stains and smells.

2. Maintenance/Security 
During my journey, all four stations that I traversed (Bethesda, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Archives and Smithsonian) had a manned personnel booth on the ticketing level. In contrast, even 7th/metro station, arguably the most prominent hub in the Los Angeles MetroRail network, lacks a permanent personnel booth and hosts maintenance on only a sporadic basis (usually for the purpose of upkeep rather than customer assistance). The personnel presence in WAMTA stations not only enhanced my sense of security but allowed me to seek out advice on how to use the system's new "Smartcards" (reusable, plastic fare-holding cards akin to TAP cards). If only I had such assistance all the times the TAP-vending machines at the Civic Center Station malfunctioned.

3. Frequency
Based on the timetable monitors, trains had average headways of only about 5 minutes on the Red Line and 7 to 9 minutes on the Yellow and Silver Lines-when I rode on a Saturday morning. By contrast, Subway and Light Rail trains in Los Angeles have headways as gaping as 20 minutes on Weekends, with even weekday rush-hour headways decreasing to no less than 10 minutes. As the transit consultant Jarrett Walker famously notes, "Frequency is Freedom": the tight headways in D.C. allowed an 8+-mile suburb-to-city trip, with transfers, to be completed in as little as 25 minutes (on the return). In Los Angeles, an 8.5 mile trip from Downtown to my house in the "Central" area of the city (involving both subway and bus) takes an hour, at minimum, during rush hour due in part to the limited frequency.

This is not to say that the D.C. system does not have flaws of its own-particularly in infrastructure upkeep (as this past week's shutdown shows). But as the Los Angeles County Metro seeks to counter ridership drops and make LA a transit friendly city, it needs to consider factors that make D.C. shine comparatively.

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