Mil­len­nial ex­o­dus drives Metro’s rid­er­ship drop

Agency’s dra­matic de­clines are most pro­nounced among the seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion ages 18 to 29, study finds

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY FAIZ SID­DIQUI faiz.sid­diqui@wash­post.com

Just as a new Metro study points to poor ser­vice as the key cause of its fal­ter­ing rid­er­ship, an out­side anal­y­sis paints a pro­file of the com­muters most likely to aban­don the sys­tem: mil­len­ni­als, the gen­er­a­tion said to be killing ev­ery­thing from home­own­er­ship to driv­ing to, uh, may­on­naise.

Metro’s dra­matic rid­er­ship de­clines — from 750,000 av­er­age daily trips in 2009 to just 626,000 by May — are most pro­nounced among the seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion ages 18 to 29, the mo­bile, Uber-savvy gen­er­a­tion that now makes up the largest share of the work­force (if you ex­pand “mil­len­nial” to in­clude those up to age 35).

That’s ac­cord­ing to a new anal­y­sis from Ter­a­lyt­ics, a Zurich-based tech­nol­ogy com­pany that ex­am­ines mo­bil­ity trends based on bulk data col­lected from pop­u­lar mo­bile car­ri­ers. Ter­a­lyt­ics says its anal­y­sis is based on data from one the “big four” car­ri­ers and rep­re­sents more than a quar­ter of the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion.

The Ter­a­lyt­ics anal­y­sis, orig­i­nally com­piled for the ad­vo­cacy group Tran­sitCen­ter and ex­panded for The Wash­ing­ton Post, showed that be­tween April 2016 and April 2018, rid­ers age 29 and un­der took 21 per­cent fewer trips on Metro. On week­ends, the trend was worse: Mil­len­ni­als took nearly 40 per­cent fewer trips when com­pared with the same month the two years be­fore.

As the data shows, that’s a prob­lem for Metro be­cause mil­len­ni­als, many of whom have shunned car own­er­ship, make up about one-fifth of tran­sit users and the largest share in the study, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors. (The au­thors noted that the mil­len­nial age range was slightly wider than the other cat­e­gories. And yes, they say, their study ad­justs for fac­tors such as the in­creased like­li­hood that mil­len­ni­als are car­ry­ing a cell­phone or com­mut­ing to 9-to-5 jobs.)

To be sure, rail rid­er­ship de­clined across all age ranges over the two-year pe­riod in the study. Metro ac­knowl­edges that be­tween May 2016 and May 2018, rid­er­ship dropped 9.6 per­cent as the agency em­barked on dis­rup­tive long-term re­pairs un­der SafeTrack, cut its ser­vice hours and re­duced train fre­quency across five of six lines.

But the Ter­a­lyt­ics data il­lus­trates how dra­matic the de­clines be­came for a crit­i­cal seg­ment of the rid­ing pop­u­la­tion. In April 2018, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s anal­y­sis, mil­len­ni­als were tak­ing more than 30 per­cent fewer trips than two years be­fore. By con­trast, rid­er­ship among those 50 to 59 years old was down but by a fig­ure closer to about 10 per­cent.

“The ab­so­lute numbers ac­tu­ally just con­stantly drop,” said Canay Deniz, chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer at Ter­a­lyt­ics. “Mil­len­ni­als are drop­ping month by month,” char­ac­ter­iz­ing the con­sis­tent dip as, well, “quite crazy.”

Tran­sit rid­er­ship is down across the United States in a pe­riod co­in­cid­ing with the de­cline of ur­ban rapid tran­sit in­fra­struc­ture and the rise of al­ter­na­tives such as Uber and Lyft, bike shar­ing and mo­bil­ity trends like elec­tric scoot­ers. Tran­sitCen­ter found that rail and bus rid­er­ship was down in 31 of 35 large U.S. cities in 2017. But Metro’s losses were more ex­treme than those of its peer sys­tems amid a pe­riod of chronic ser­vice and re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems that plunged rid­er­ship to early-2000s lev­els.

“I think at the end of the day, af­ter you’ve ad­dressed safety, af­ter you’ve ad­dressed in­fra­struc­ture, what’s left is ser­vice,” Rep. Ger­ald E. Con­nolly (D-Va.) said. “And when you ride Metro, that’s the com­plaint you hear quite fre­quently.”

Con­nolly said Metro sim­ply needs to step up and pro­vide a con­sis­tent, re­li­able ride.

“If we’re go­ing to re­verse the loss of rid­er­ship, that [Metro] study tells you point blank what the real prob­lem is,” he said.

The data firm makes no as­sump­tions about the causes driv­ing the de­clines. Metro has pre­vi­ously pin­pointed fac­tors such as tele­work­ing, a smaller fed­eral work­force and cheaper gas prices. Less clear is the ex­tent to which the ser­vice prob­lems have driven rid­ers to al­ter­na­tives such as Uber and Lyft, whose driver bases have in­creased by tens of thou­sands while rev­enue has ex­ploded since 2015, but whose to­tal rid­er­ship in the re­gion re­mains un­known. Uber has claimed to have about 42,000 driv­ers and 2 mil­lion ac­tive rid­ers in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion.

Deniz summed up the predica­ment this way: “The sub­way knows about sub­way rid­ers. The bus net­work knows about bus rid­ers. Ride-shar­ing com­pa­nies know about their spe­cific driv­ers and rid­ers. But none of them know about each other’s rid­ers.”

Nat Bot­tigheimer, Metro’s for­mer as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager for plan­ning and joint de­vel­op­ment, said that although the Uber puz­zle piece is im­por­tant, equally nec­es­sary is know­ing the ex­tent to which peo­ple sim­ply are not tak­ing the trips they used to.

“Are peo­ple sim­ply mak­ing a choice not to travel if they don’t have tran­sit avail­able to them?” he said. “If I have a lap­top and I’m mo­bile . . . I may pre­fer to be work­ing in a collaborative en­vi­ron­ment with my part­ners and I may de­cide to do that three days a week as op­posed to five days a week.”

He said it’s an is­sue strug­gling tran­sit agen­cies have yet to fully grasp.

“You call it telecom­mut­ing; at this point, I’m not sure peo­ple even call it telecom­mut­ing any­more,” he said. “They’re just work­ing wher­ever they are. It would be nice to know how many peo­ple are sub­sti­tut­ing no trip for a tran­sit trip.”

Week­ends are an­other key prob­lem for the agency. Metro says two-thirds of its rid­er­ship losses over the past two years have come dur­ing off-peak and week­end pe­ri­ods, when the agency typ­i­cally launches its most dis­rup­tive re­build­ing and main­te­nance work, and the sys­tem be­comes harder to ac­cess. For some age ranges, such as the 50-59 and 60-plus groups, week­end rid­er­ship ac­tu­ally in­creased com­pared with the same pe­riod in April 2016. Mil­len­ni­als were a dif­fer­ent story.

Those 18 to 29 were tak­ing just 60.5 per­cent the amount of week­end trips they had taken in April 2016, be­fore SafeTrack, ac­cord­ing to the data. The de­clines il­lus­trated a dra­matic trend: While rid­er­ship among some age ranges has fluc­tu­ated over time, the per­cent­age of mil­len­ni­als rid­ing has con­sis­tently de­creased.

“We’d be hy­poth­e­siz­ing in terms of what the cause of this is,” Deniz cau­tioned. “There are many, many modes of trans­porta­tion, and the more used to tech­nol­ogy you are, the more likely you are to prob­a­bly test those modes out . . . . I think th­ese new modes of trans­porta­tion such as bike shar­ing, ride shar­ing, all those things — be­cause they’re so tied to tech­nol­ogy — they might have a big­ger draw for the younger gen­er­a­tions.

“But again, it’s a hy­poth­e­sis,” Deniz said.

Round­ing out the anal­y­sis was an­other pointed con­clu­sion that for those at­tuned to Metro’s week­end ser­vice sched­ule prob­a­bly isn’t a sur­prise.

“Al­most no one uses the Metro ev­ery week­end.”

ROBERT MILLER/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A commuter rides a scooter on 15th Street NW. Tran­sit rid­er­ship is down across the United States with the rise of al­ter­na­tives such as Uber and Lyft, bike shar­ing and mo­bil­ity trends like elec­tric scoot­ers.

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