Quick Takeaways From a Few Weeks on Public Transit in Washington, D.C.

In my previous posts, I have written a lot about city design and integrating emerging forms of transit, primarily automated vehicles, into the transportation landscape of a city. I am spending this summer in Washington, DC, and am getting an up-close look at this city’s transit options. I left my car behind for the summer, so for the first time in years, I am entirely reliant on public transportation, ridesharing apps, and my own feet to navigate the city. In the process, I have learned a few things that I plan to explore in more depth over the course of the summer. For now, here are the highlights:

1. Scooters do provide important transit for at least some people:

My house is about 0.6 miles from the bus line I take to work. So far, I have walked to that stop every morning. Along the way though, I see people riding by on scooters between the metro or bus station and their homes. It may yet be the case that scooters are a passing fad, and for now they appear – at least anecdotally – to have been adopted primarily by younger people. And to be sure, regulating them has been controversial in cities across the nation, which I plan to address in a coming post. For now though, they do show promise as a “last-mile” transit option for people who prefer not to drive.

2. A wide range of transit options improves access and reliability:

I ride the bus to and from work every day. When I want to explore the city on weekends, I take the metro downtown. I was running late to meet a friend the other day, and got an Uber. Others use scooters or the city’s bike-share program to get where they need to go. All of these options will work better or worse for different people, and for different purposes. All of them operating together can create a more functional, accessible transit system that serves the entire city.

3. Walkable neighborhoods ease the burden on a city’s transit system:

I live in a neighborhood with a grocery store, a Target, and a handful of bars and restaurants within a few blocks radius. As a consequence, I can walk just about everywhere I have to go except my office. Later this summer, I plan to explore ways in which cities can encourage development of walkable neighborhoods, thus easing the burden on overtaxed public transit systems and reducing the use of personal cars in the long run.

4. Affordable housing is directly linked to transit equity:

Perhaps this goes without saying, but a good, comprehensive transit network within a city does little good for the people who cannot afford to live in that city. This week, I’ve spoken with a couple people in my office who live an hour outside the city because it’s more affordable than living here. They drive to the farthest out metro stations, park there then ride into the city. To be sure, this still reduces congestion within the city. But good, reliable public transit is primarily important for the quality of life, cost savings, and environmental benefits that come with reduced use of personal automobiles and shorter commutes. People who have to commute a long way to even get to the public transit system in the city where they work are largely left out of those benefits.