Metro Rail Washington DC

Washington Celebrates Metro’s 35th Anniversary. Is it Defining the Region’s Growth?

» Census data point to uneven outcomes when it comes to orienting land use changes around transit.

For a brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it looked like U.S. cities were back in the subway-building business. The federal government approved billions of dollars in aid for the construction of new networks in San Francisco, Atlanta, and — most significantly — Washington. In the nation’s capital, a world-class system was constructed, radically redefining the city’s landscape and offering its residents a fundamentally new and modern way to get around.

This week, Metro celebrates the 35th anniversary of the opening of its first line, whose construction first began in late 1969. How effective has the system been in re-orienting development patterns?

In many ways, Metro has proven to be an essential element of the region’s mobility system. Ridership, depending on who is counting and how they are doing it, ranges between 700,000 and 900,000 trips a day — adding up to about 340 million trips a year, when you include bus services. That’s slightly lower than initial estimates from the 1970s, which predicted 350 million annual trips in 1990, but it still makes it the nation’s second most-used rapid transit system after New York’s. And Metro’s initial phase, about 100 miles in all, was completed twenty years late — after 2000, versus 1981 as first planned.

Thus Washington’s network is relatively new: Extensions continue to open every few years; a major new line running to and beyond Dulles Airport, in fact, is in construction.

This means that many of the changes that have been hypothesized to accompany heavy rail service, like densification, may not have yet appeared. Nonetheless, in some places, such as along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor in Arlington County, Virginia, significant urban redevelopment has occurred. Similarly, in cities like Charlotte, Denver, and Minneapolis, major new construction has begun after the completion of light rail lines.

Just how widespread are these effects? Have similar changes happened everywhere where new Metro stations have opened in the Washington region?

To examine this question, I have delved into recently released Census 2010 data to consider what has changed since 2000. By considering the alterations in development patterns near stations that opened about ten years ago, we can better understand what has occurred.

On first evaluation, there is no clear connection between the opening of a new station and increased construction — at least on a ten-year timeline.

Between 1997 and 2001, nine Metro stations opened, two of which were in the heart of the city on the Green Line (Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue) and the rest of which were at the termini of the Red (Glenmont), Blue (Franconia-Springfield), and Green Lines (Congress Heights, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland, and Branch Avenue).

Compared to their host jurisdictions, only three of the nine stations saw higher growth in adjacent Census tracts: Columbia Heights, Franconia-Springfield, and Branch Avenue. In the areas around these stations, densification was significant, promoting the theory that transit can be an effective tool for urban regeneration and growth. These changes were particularly interesting at Columbia Heights, where an already pretty dense neighborhood only became more so thanks to rapid replacement of low-lying building stock with taller buildings. Around the other two stops, largely vacant land was replaced with new construction.

Around two other stations — Georgia Avenue and Glenmont — growth was also positive, but it was slower than in Washington and Montgomery County, respectively.

Finally, four of the studied stations saw a decrease in population in the surrounding Census tracts. Each station is on the southeastern branch of the Green Line, which runs through arguably the region’s weakest area from an economic perspective. The presence of transit did not appear to be of any help here: Though Washington and Prince George’s County saw population growth between 2000 and 2010, the specific neighborhoods around these stations did not.

Changes appear to be quite context-dependent. The population of the area around the Columbia Heights station expanded significantly, likely not only because of the presence of Metro, but also because of a growing interest in living in urban cores being experienced nationwide. On the other hand, the poor attractiveness of Prince George’s County, just east of the District of Columbia, likely reduced developer interest in building around stations there.

This analysis indicates that the presence of a transit station cannot provide alone for the kind of urban redevelopment planners often hope to produce when they allocate funds to new rail lines. This does not mean that the opening of the new Metro stations was not an important element of regional growth in Washington, but rather that that infrastructure in itself is not enough to encourage developer interest. In the case of many of these stations, land was not available, zoning was not free enough, and the neighborhoods were not attractive enough to see substantial change, at least over the past ten years.

Transit systems like the Washington Metro are very expensive to construct, so public authorities must make a greater effort to coordinate planning efforts to allow for the creation of more transit-oriented districts to take advantage of such investments.

I would like to note several important caveats: The use of Census tract data in this analysis was meant to provide a neighborhood-level glimpse into development changes. Residents (or potential residents) are likely to see Metro stations as assets, even if their homes are not in immediate proximity. Yet development changes are likely to be unusually affected by that proximity: It may be useful to reconsider these questions at the block level. It is possible, for instance, that the areas directly adjacent to the southeast Green Line stations did see growth, even when surrounding neighborhoods did not.

Opening DayPlace/ Station (# of Census tracts)Pop 2000Pop 2010Density 2010Change in PopChange in PopChange in Housing Units
2001 01 13Congress Heights (3)11,96411,2216,080.85-743.00-6.21%-5.35%
2001 01 13Southern Ave (3)12,82611,7306,624.12-1,096.00-8.55%-2.25%
2001 01 13Naylor Rd (6)22,77522,2625,114.41-513.00-2.25%0.31%
2001 01 13Suitland (4)17,27216,8333,788.74-439.00-2.54%-3.51%
2001 01 13Branch Ave (1)3,4254,6962,582.801,271.0037.11%83.13%
1999 09 18Georgia Ave/ Petworth (5)20,49021,35125,104.06861.004.20%6.70%
1999 09 18Columbia Heights (4)16,43417,64644,015.961,212.007.37%19.99%
1998 07 25Glenmont (6)26,86628,6784,606.171,812.006.74%1.52%
1997 06 29Franconia/ Springfield (3)11,44313,2933,772.781,850.0016.17%16.15%
Montgomery County873,374971,7771,978.1598,403.0011.27%12.33%
Prince George's County801,476863,4201,788.7661,944.007.73%8.54%
Fairfax County969,8401,081,7262,766.78111,886.0011.54%13.51%

Image above: A Washington Metro station, from Flickr user Matt Blasi Designs (cc)

34 replies on “Washington Celebrates Metro’s 35th Anniversary. Is it Defining the Region’s Growth?”

Patience. The Eisenhower Ave. Metrorail station opened in 1983. The tract next to it is still a parking lot. The landowner and the City of Alexandria have been negotiating for the last 28 years over development of this tract (and others nearby owned by the same landowner). Negotiations have not always been amicable. There has been at least one lawsuit. Late last year, agreement was reached on, and the City Council approved, CDD2, a milestone that defines overall size, shape, retail floor area, parking etc. There will still need to be City approval of final design before construction can begin.

This is perhaps an extreme case, but it shows that while TOD can happen it’s not necessarily rapid.

It’s not just “poor attractiveness” of Prince George’s County that has resulted in the negative population growth along that part of the Green Line. Though one could argue that this is part of “poor attractiveness”, the county itself has not been proactive in zoning and development/redevelopment endeavors. And while DC has, it should also be noted that there is vocal opposition amongst some Southeast neighborhoods to gentrification.


Great point there’s a dichotomy in place when planners and elected leaders want to be aggressive in promoting economic redevelopment and thats the fear of Gentrification. In some parts of LA, building the infrastructure isn’t enough, a complete culture change from both the planning/zoning agencies and the local communities to understand and trust each other on those endevours.

Keep in mind that the 350 million trips a year estimate was predicated on the entire system being completed in 1990. The last bit of the Green Line wasn’t finished for more than a decade later. Some of it also might have been wishful 1970’s-era thinking that America was going to make a big shift towards using public transit more in the future (largely not borne out in the 80’s and 90’s–the car stayed king and more sprawl than most people would think possible was built).

The lack of development around Green Line stations (excluding Branch Avenue) is disappointing, but could be attributed to the poor image of (inner?) Prince George’s county for potential residents and developers. As Froggie pointed out, opposition to gentrification is an obstacle. Prince George’s seems to be caught in a chicken-and-egg situation, developers won’t develop there (few supermarkets, malls, commercial amenities compared to Montgomery County and Northern Virginia), so it remains unattractive to new residents, so developers won’t develop there…

Can’t wait until the Dulles station is finally brought on line. It will make traveling to DCA so much easier and better.

Yes, it will be a big boon to the region. You’ll be able to use Dulles without having to worry about parking, and visitors arriving to DC from international destinations will be able to take a train from Dulles to their hotels or conferences in the District, just as they can in London, Paris, Tokyo, and Beijing.

No I meant the entire Metro system actually.

If you fly into Dulles now and use the metro, you have to ride the Washington Flyer, expensive, takes you to the metro station in Falls Church, where you disembrak and then wait for a train. Life will be a lot easier when the line is up and running, years over due.

You don’t travel to the DC area much, so you have no clue of what the traffic and parking is like in the DC area . That is obvious on your part.

I’m in DC two, three, four times a year. I avoid Dulles. I avoid National and BWI too. I take the train. So do most people, with origins in the Mid-Atlantic anyway.

So YOU have to ride the Washington Flyer. It doesn’t mean that that is the only option to connect to metro.

The lack of development in PG County is the fault of that county’s leaders, who did not enable sensible planning next to stations. Almost every Metro station in PG is nothing more than a park and ride. Even though PG has more stations than neighboring Montgomery County, its population hasn’t been stimulated and development has stymied.

They really should look at what’s happening in Montgomery and Arlington Counties.

Yes, the issue with the lack of development around the Metro stations in PG county can be attributed to the political leadership, the political class, and the auto oriented developers in the county – and the backroom deals. The county politics have been focused on building a black middleclass suburbia with big name retail stores and strip malls and don’t seem to have ever really stay focused on the tax base expansion that could come from TOD projects around the Metro stations.

With development apparently moving forward for the New Carrollton Metro stop, that is changing. New Carrollton is an obvious place for development with it being an end of the Orange Line stop, an Amtrak & MARC stop on the NEC, next the Beltway between Rt. 50 and the BW Parkway AND the end point of the planned Purple Line light rail. Talk about a good location for density development.

Once Metro reaches Dulles, combined with MARTA serving BWI, is Reagan (DCA) even still needed? Talk about a huge opportunity for TOD.

Brian, do you mean MARC? The problem with MARC service to BWI is that it is primarily a commuter line, so there is no service on weekends and limited service outside of rush hour.

I would say certainly, DCA is still needed. BWI and IAD provide longer haul flights are located much further outside of the urban core. Even once Metro arrives at IAD, it will still be a 45+ minute ride from downtown, so time in transit will be a factor as well. In addition, without express service, the Silver Line is not designed with IAD service in mind. If anything, I’d argue that DCA service should be expanded to beyond the very limited long-haul flights to create a world class city with accessible and plentiful air options.

Runways at DCA are not long enough for distances much longer than what they have right now.

I’d argue the place is dangerous with such short runways. pilots have to really spool the planes up and slingshot you down the shoot to get the bird in the air.

National Airport remains ideal for all those small shuttle planes beloved of the “jet set”. While I expect a lot of those people are going to switch to trains in the coming decades, it’ll probably still have a significant niche application. Perhaps it will be converted to do more general aviation.

MARC does have long term plans to change into a 7 day a week operation on the Penn Line (the NEC) with commuter service up to Newark, DE. But the NEC between DC, Baltimore, and Perryville MD has to upgraded first with more tracks, capacity and Amtrak would probably want the B&P Tunnel in west Baltimore replaced first as well before they allow MARC to run 7 days a week level service. If that happens, BWI becomes a 1/2 or 1 hour frequency MARC trip from DC or Baltimore Penn Station.

As for National Airport, just because the airport is close to the city and Capitol Hill, does not mean it should get even more airplane flights than it already does. Many major cities have their airports at equivalent distances to Dulles and BWI from downtown – and they do ok.

Another way BWI could get rail service would be to extend the Grenn Line north to BWI. If i’m not mistaken, at one time there was a proposal to have it run there with through running on Baltimore’s Heavy Rail line sometime prior to that line’s unfortunate truncation due to againsters’ not wanting the line in Anne Arundel County.There were several extensions to DC’s Metro proposed that were pidgeonholled which should be revived. The
Green Line to Laurel is the first one.there was also the Orange Line to Bowie.Others include the Green Line to Brandywine,an extension from Franconia to Lorton,Huntington to Fairfield,A line down Columbia Pike to Linolnia,and another to Annandale,The Red line out to Gaithersburg and Germantown and some kind of line from Vienna to Fairfax. Itprobably wouldn’t hurt to take another look at at least some of these extensions because growth and sprawl in these areas isn’t going to stop just because the Metro doesn’t go into these areas.

If one were to extend a DC Metro line to BWI Airport, it would likely be the Orange Line from New Carrollton – which would follow the NEC ROW! From either Greenbelt or New Carrollton, it is about 18 miles to BWI, so this would be a seriously expensive extension – both along existing MARC used rail track. If the goal is better 7 days a week rail service to BWI, upgrading the NEC and converting MARC to a 7 day operation with hourly or half-hourly DC to Baltimore service would be a far, far less expensive option. And would be done under the NEC Improvement plans with a larger funding base.

Extending many of the other lines further out is problematical because the trip time with all the stops become an issue, even before the cost is added up. Extending the Orange line further west on I-66 or the Yellow Line south to Fort Belvoir should be looked at, but they will all feed into a increasingly capacity limited core set of lines in DC.

I know very little about the local specifics for the DC area stations cited above, but this analysis makes me think of three other considerations/possibilities…

1.) Family unit trends may be part of this story: in the data-table above, household size is declining in virtually every county and station area–except Glenmont?? There might be more room to add residents in a TOD (e.g. by singles in modest-sized units adding a room-mate or partner) than we can see from the current population mix.

2.) Do real estate and construction issues have anything to do with the differences seen here? I can imagine numerous other explanatory variables: complexity of obtaining easements and/or parcel assembly, use of eminent domain, early involvement of private developer(s) for funding/financing, relative disruption (or coordination) required for different construction methods, and final physical environment (i.e. different engineering and design considerations for how to build over/around/near a tunnel/at-grade/elevated station). It seems to me that these hyper-local issues would dominate the data within the first decade, so much so that a raw population count might not be a useful comparative indicator.

3.) What about other types of density besides residential population? I know Census data is recently available and easy to manipulate, and I do appreciate the focus on data rather than anecdotes. But a low density of persons living near a new station need not be a problem if we see increasing density of other uses (employment, entertainment) because of the improved accessibility for persons living elsewhere on the transit network.

It might be useful to run a simple regression against several trends. Eyeballing is always going to be less useful than a statistical analysis. I don’t know the area, but even adding a couple of variables and a big error allowance might make more sense.

The Green Line’s poor performance is hardly surprising, and attributing it to SE and inner PG county’s being “weak” economically is understating the problem. Both areas are notorious for their crime and poverty, and are the toughest parts of DC. The Metro has only been there 10 years, and the areas weren’t that walkable to start with. The failure of the Metro to singlehandedly reverse the trend is hardly surprising. Eventually, the metro may induce more development.

The analysis does not include commercial development. Population change is only half (or less) of the land use change story around transit hubs.

People need to understand what really did the trick in Arlington — 40 to 50 years of a constant political regime. The county government played hardball over Metro from the begininning and followed a plan — force the Orange line under Wilson Boulevard as a subway, minimize I-66 (down whose median state planners wanted to put the Orange Line even in north Arlington close to the district), and then, once the infrastructure was in place, build a local consensus from the bottom up in a participatory way in favor of some kind of transit oriented development, with the specifics left to the interaction between citizens and planners and developers.

Transit wonks and planners are incredibly politically naive and poor at communicating and need to better learn how the game is played; study this comprehensively and you’ll see how much the successes of Arlington and also Montgomery counties depended on a particular kind of politics practiced very consistently over a long period of time.

Fairfax and PG, by contrast, have suffered from stop-go planning where control of the county government alternates between “smart-growth” and “park-and-ride” types, with the consequences you see today — horrible traffic, mediocre Metro use, and non-walkable neighborhoods. Arlington has a natural advantage having been relatively high-density to start with but it still could not have happened without the kind of politics that faced down the state repeatedly — on school desegregation, freeways, land use and transit planning — while building popular support through active citizen involvement.

While the census data is interesting, it is more interesting, I think, to look at how the various local jurisdictions have gone about the initial placement of the stations and the development around the station. While Arlington County, Alexandria City and DC have really “densified” around their stations, as has Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties (in their more interior stations, like Bethesda), Fairfax County took a very different approach. First, it has several of its Orange Line Stations in I-66 median. Its Vienna Station, the Orange Line terminus has two large garages and parking areas, effectively walling off dense development around the station. Franconia-Springfield Station is dense when you look at census data, but from a planning point of view, they took open land and built up around the station. The station is somewhat removed by the Franconia-Springfield Parkway (3 lanes, both directions) and is also a Virginia Rail Express Station, and access to it is blocked from a residential area that is across the CSX tracks.

While Fairfax County seems to have gotten the message in its planning for the Silver Line to Dulles and Tysons Corner, the planning around these other stations has been playing catch-up with the needs of the area. All would benefit as light rail or BRT hubs, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards in car-friendly Fairfax County. An extension of the Orange Line to the Fair Oaks area, either with more subway or transitioning to a heavy rail configuration seem like logical extensions to areas that have already experienced heavy growth and could use some denser core areas.

Leave a Reply