Commuting without Metro is a struggle for late-night workers

Darryl Haden, 34, and Mathieu Ghirardo, 21, start their workday when many of us are prepping for our exit. As fryers at Amsterdam Falafelshop, they come in around 4 pm, and may not get off work until 4 am the following morning. For both Ghirardo, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, and Haden, who lives in Oxon Hill, Maryland, this schedule creates complicated transportation challenges as they try to get home.

While most people work between 9 am and 5 pm, about 12% are on the clock at 9 pm, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number drops to 3% by 2 am when Ghirardo and Haden are working. But that still leaves a lot of people—people who are disproportionately dependant on transit—who need a way to commute.

“It’s up and down,” says Haden. “Sometimes it’s cool during the week. We get off at about 4 am and the train starts at 5 am. But on the weekend, it gets you thinking about decisions you made. If I leave at 5:30 am, I don’t get home until about 8:30 am, or 9 am because the trains don’t run in Maryland.”

Haden said his journey takes him to the Anacostia train station, but then he has to wait until about 6 or 7 am for the A2 or A6 bus to take him to Southern Avenue station, which is closest to his home in Oxon Hill. To add insult to injury, “I’ve been left several times [by bus drivers],” he said. “I’m out here grinding. I am like ‘why do I have to go through all of this?’”

His onerous commute has a trickle-down impact on everything, including family time: “I got a day job, but I had to cut back because I couldn’t get there on time. It’s rough. I got two boys.” Haden said he tried ride-hailing apps, but the price tag is prohibitive. “It cost me $36 to get home on the weekends,” Haden says. “A shared ride is $21 dollars.”

Some late-night workers spend big chunks of their income on transit

Binh Ngo, a 33-year-old bartender and musician, recently sat with me to discuss his work commute. Ngo lives in Mount Rainier and works at The Line Hotel in Adams Morgan.

“If I bike, then I ride down two main streets and takes me about 35-40 minutes from my house. But it’s one thing to take a bike in the day, but at night it’s either take a taxi or an Uber home,” Ngo says. “I gotta go through a couple rough neighborhoods at night, and still don’t feel comfortable walking. “

But even though he has options to get back and forth to work, there is a high cost: “For every paycheck I end up spending, on transportation alone, close to a third of my paycheck.”

Bartender Binh Ngo. Image by the author.

“For me, I bartend. I have a substantial income,” Ngo said. “But I think about people who are coming to the city working on minimum wage. Just the price to commute unless you live in the city. And most of the people have been priced out of the city.”

“I used to work downtown at Zaytinya, and a lot of my staff and co-workers couldn’t even close at night because a lot of them had to use the Metro to get home. This was before the scooters and the bikes. If you tried to use Uber at night, that surcharge [was expensive],” Ngo said.

Business owners feel the crunch too

Arianne Bennett and her husband Scott have been co-owners of the Amsterdam Falafelshop since 2004. The restaurant stays open to serve the hungry crowds after the bar close, and accommodates travelers who come into DC late in the evening and want something to eat. But those late hours can make for a difficult commute for some workers.

“You find your employees are leaving Sunday and Monday at 1:30 am in the morning,” Bennett says. “There’s no Metro available, and they may live in PG County or Alexandria and they are not able to get home in the morning unless they take Uber or Lyft, which you can’t do on a minimum wage salary.”

Their workers use different strategies to get home. “In the past, I’ve caught people sleeping in the basement waiting in chairs until Metro opens, or going to McDonald’s and waiting,” Bennett said. She worries about the safety of her employees riding at night, let alone in inclement weather.

In the meantime, hiring is getting harder. “We can’t get employees,” Bennett said. “I’m fighting against all my neighbors to get that one employee who has the ability to get in and out of work or is local…So then you train staff and someone else has offered them a $1 more and they’ve jumped ship. “

Bennett said she has been asked why her company doesn’t subsidize the cost of her employees to get to and from work during that time. “Why am I responsible for providing transportation in a cosmopolitan city that is the leader and the example for cities all over the country?” Bennett responds. “DC says we want a vibrant city, and a robust economy and that includes hotels, hot spots, places of worship. If your place of worship holds a 7 am service, how do you get there by 6 am to set it up if Metro isn’t open?”

Amsterdam Falafelshop in Adams Morgan. Image by the author.

Neil Albert, President of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID), agrees that a robust transit system helps business. “In my estimation, [the transit system is] the lifeblood of DC,” Albert says. “More people come into Downtown DC by transit than by private cars, so it’s really critical for the economic vitality of the BID.”

Curtailed Metro hours impact downtown DC in multiple ways, Albert told me. It’s harder and more expensive for workers to commute, and it’s also prohibitive for people who want to participate in the nightlife. He recognizes that people who patronize these establishments usually have more money to use ride-hailing apps than the people who work at them.

“We heard stories, from restaurants in particular, that were keeping people overnight until the restaurant opened in the morning to save them the cost of an Uber fare,” Albert said. “People within the workforce continue to spend more of their budget for transportation.”

How did we get here?

It’s no secret that the Metro system has been behind on repairs and urgently needed maintenance. In 2016, WMATA announced its SafeTrack rebuilding plan, which moved the 3 am Friday and Saturday closing times to midnight so workers had more time to make fixes. Metro officials wanted the change to be permanent, but pushback from DC officials led to a compromise temporary period to be reviewed after two years. In 2017, closing times moved to 1 am on Friday and Saturday, and from midnight to 11:30 pm during the week.

In 2018, as the initial period was set to end, Metro again asked to make the changes permanent. DC officials and leaders, including Albert and Mayor Muriel Bowser, instead pushed to restore at least some late-night hours. The sentiment wasn’t limited to DC: 65 Maryland officials wrote a joint letter to the CEO of WMATA advocating for late-night service, but in April, Metro passed its FY2020 budget extending the current service hours for another year.

“In February, Metro’s Board of Directors approved a resolution to maintain the current service hours for another year to provide the necessary preventive maintenance hours and alternatives to meet the demand for late-night service,” Sherri Ly, WMATA’s Media Relations Manager, told me in an email. “Metrobus service also operates in key corridors nearly 24 hours, and provides many with options when the rail system is closed. Additionally, in March, Metro issued a request for proposals to provide subsidized after-hours service for eligible workers, primarily in the hospitality and health care industries.”

The shorter weekend hours have been helping Metro track workers, though the extra half hour of track time during the week has provided a relatively small benefit, GGWash contributor Stephen Repetski’s reporting from earlier this year showed.

Colin Reusch, chair of the Riders’ Advisory Council, an 11-member committee that advises the WMATA board on issues related to Metrobus, Metrorail, and MetroAccess service, thinks the system ought to do more.

“While I understand the need to make more time for ongoing maintenance to the system, I think it’s a shame that the transit system for the nation’s capital region isn’t able to provide reliable late night or weekend service,” Reusch says. “Given how often I hear riders say that they don’t even consider Metro an option for weekend or evening trips, I have to wonder what impact that’s having on local businesses.”

“It’s important to consider the burden that limited hours and service frequency place on people who work late hours and weekends,” Reusch continued. “The Riders’ Advisory Council (RAC) remains concerned that there is currently no plan to restore service to its previous levels; moreover, we have urged the WMATA Board to fill those gaps, especially late at night, with additional buses that parallel existing rail line routes where possible.”

Greensboro Metrorail station at night by srepetsk licensed under Creative Commons.

Late-night workers try all kinds of modes to make their commute

Over the year-and-a-half span he’s worked at the falafel shop, Ghirardo said he’s tried numerous ways to get home. “I actually had to buy my own electric scooter because waiting three hours for the Metro after I get off is very tiring,” Ghirardo said. “I would get home at 9:30 in the morning and have to wake up at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to get ready to come back.”

Prior to the scooter, on weekends when he got off work he would hang around the store until Metro started running again at 7 am on Saturdays and 8 am on Sundays. “I would wait inside here for hours, and then walk to Farragut West,” he said.

With his scooter, Ghirardo says it now takes him about 30 minutes to get to his house. By Metro, with its current curtailed hours, it sometimes takes him three hours to travel the same eight miles. The scooter makes things a little easier, but getting home in inclement weather is still tough. “I’ve had to take my scooter when it’s hailing and storming,” he said. “When it rains, if I were able to take the Metro it would be a blessing.”

DC Councilmember Mary Cheh recently introduced a bill that would put tight restrictions on scooter use in the District. Among other things, the Electric Mobility Devices Amendment Act of 2019 would prohibit e-scooter use between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am, a policy that would directly impact people like Ghirardo. (Cheh has said she’s open to dropping that particular provision.)

While Ghirardo lives relatively close to the shop where the scooter is a workable mode of travel, it’s not likely an option for workers from farther away, like Hayden and Ngo.

There’s a gender element here too. Research has shown that women in aggregate pay for more for transportation than men, a phenomenon known as the “Pink Transit Tax.” Some women spend more to avoid harassment and to feel safe—that is, if they’re affluent enough to have those options.

Metro tests out a ride-hailing remedy

On June 24, Metro announced a plan to help workers affected by its earlier closing times. Beginning July 1, late-night commuters could take advantage of its “After-Hours Commuter Service,” which provides qualifying participants with a $3 discount on up to 10 on Lyft per week within Metro’s service area.

“This program will provide late-night workers with a more affordable transportation option during overnight hours as we advance essential maintenance programs that improve safety and reliability,” WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said in a press release. Ly says in July, 130 workers registered to participate in the service.

But ride-hailing was not the solution everyone was hoping for. “To be clear, the RAC as a body did not support the initiative to subsidize ride-hailing services like Lyft between midnight and 4 am,” Reusch said. “We feel that transit dollars should be spent on the transit system itself, and are concerned that this initiative will result in more people leaving Metro behind in favor of ride-hailing services.”

“I’m also concerned by the precedent that sets with regard to putting more cars on the road when we’ve seen a rise in pedestrian and cyclist deaths on our region’s roads. The region should be focused on making mass transit, in addition to low-impact commuting (e.g., bicycling) a realistic choice for as many people as possible,” Reusch added.

The S4 traverses downtown Washington, DC. by srepetsk licensed under Creative Commons.

“We sympathize with WMATA, we know they have to get it done,” Albert said, referring to the system’s repairs. Nonetheless, he would like the system to find a solution that incorporates both repairs and reliable service for late-night workers.

Albert pointed toward other cities like Chicago that have implemented “night owl” bus systems that run parallel to major train routes, and says Metrobus could offer more late-night options. He suggested focusing on particular bus routes along the Green Line where many people who service the late-night economy live, “rather than subsidizing Lyft at $3 a ride where it is going to cost someone $15-20 even if they were in a pool.”

While the greatest numbers of Metro riders use the system during rush hours and the mid-day, Albert, Reusch, and others want to ensure that the late-night riders such as Ghirardo, Hayden, and Ngo, who never attend WMATA board meetings, are not forgotten in policy debates. And meanwhile, they still have to get to work.

Top image: Mathieu Ghirardo (left) and Darryl Haden (right) work a late night shift at Amsterdam Falafelshop in Adams Morgan. Image by the author.

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