Washington, D.C., Shut Down Its Entire Subway System for a Day, and Uber and Lyft Are Giddy

A D.C. Metro train arrives in a station.


Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail system has become notoriously unreliable, a network constantly beset by service outages and rush-hour breakdowns. Metro may have spawned whole subgenres of social-media ombudsmen dedicated to “unsucking” its failures, but its Tuesday announcement of a 29-hour systemwide shutdown beginning the following day was a shock even considering its own, constantly disappointing track record. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s rationale—“emergency inspections of the system’s third-rail power cables following an early morning fire Tuesday”—felt significant; shuttering the entire system was probably the right call, even if Metro clearly should have been doing a better job inspecting its rails before this week. Still, as a consequence, hundreds of thousands of commuters have fewer, if any, transit options Wednesday.

As the Washington Post’s Emily Badger wrote Tuesday, local businesses, employees, and customers alike will suffer during the shutdown. To this, Badger adds, “A lot of money will be lost in gridlock.” Surely that’s true, but a handful of companies quickly twisted this situation to their advantage, turning Metro riders’ misfortune into an opportunity for promotion. In a way, that’s reassuring: Metrorail ridership has been dropping off for some time. With or without it, residents of this multimodal metropolis still have Ubers and Lyfts and taxis to hail, bike lanes to coast down, Metrobuses to hop on, and, if they live close enough to their jobs, sidewalks to traverse.

Disconcertingly, among these are companies whose implicit goals include competing with if not outright replacing our municipal transit systems with cheap substitutes. As these alternatives become cheaper for paying commuters, dollars migrate from the coffers of expensive-to-maintain subway systems into Uber’s and Lyft’s bank accounts. So, yes, it’s nice to know things don’t completely break down in Washington without a Metrorail. But some of the other options are ill-equipped to serve many of those who need mass transit most. While Wednesday’s shutdown may be a one-time deal, it’s also an omen that can be read many ways: It portends a utopian future in which commuters are comfortable using more modes of transit. At the same time, it threatens us with a more dystopian tomorrow in which municipal transportation options crumble as private-sector ones thrive.

In some cases, it’s hard to be cynical about the gestures organizations have made in response: The city-run Capital Bikeshare, which allows users to check out bicycles for short rides, promised to offer free, temporary memberships during the shutdown. Lovely as this move is, anyone who uses the system regularly knows that it’s unlikely to make a significant difference. At and around rush hour, bikes tend to be scarce in outlying areas, even under ordinary circumstances. And though Bikeshare is guaranteeing spots where its vehicles can be checked back in, it may still be difficult to safely stash your borrowed ride once you’re done with it, depending on where you’re headed. Further, since Bikeshare will still charge for rides that last longer than half an hour, its largesse only truly extends to those who live proximate to their work places.

While there’s nothing wrong with creating more potential cyclists, this isn’t the only way to do it. Independent cycling advocates in the city have attempted to turn the shutdown into an outreach opportunity, promoting the hashtag #wmatabikepool, which invites riders to roll along together. If the Metro shutdown puts a few more bikes on the road in the long run, so much the better. But, of course, not everyone has access to a bike or the ability to ride it, meaning that such efforts can never function as a universal solution.

Other companies are more directly embracing the transportation crisis, sometimes with an attitude that borders on the gleeful. Late on Tuesday afternoon, the ride sharing service Lyft announced that it was “here to help,” promising discounts to some commuters the following day:

That concluding caveat—“first ride”—is crucial, since it means pulling in new customers, while doing little to nothing for existing patrons. It’s also little help to those new users when they’re on their way home. What’s more, this offer is hardly exceptional: Like many other sharing economy businesses, Lyft routinely offers such promotions, using them to lure users away from competing services. It should be no surprise, then, to learn that Uber has likewise donned the ceremonial robes of contingent and inconsequential munificence, promising that it will cap surge pricing for the duration, though its email to customers in the D.C. area provides no indication of how high the company will allow those elevated fares to climb.

Without such assurances—or, for that matter, the guarantee that cars will be available—the company proposes that customers try its UberPool service. UberPool pairs users with others who have a similar destination while also potentially picking up more along the way. As Alison Griswold joked in Slate when the company debuted this initiative, “No, you’re not crazy. Uber basically just announced that it’s invented a bus.” While it may not be doing so as explicitly as Lyft, Uber is still using the shutdown to show off a service many users would otherwise be unlikely to try.

Even if you treat all this temporary beneficence as a uniform good, it’s still disquieting. These are services that—this one day aside—cost money, often a lot of it, which means that they’re little use to the working poor, especially those who’ve already been priced out of the areas closer to where they’re employed. WMATA’s daily failures are legitimately maddening, but its offerings are still necessary. When Uber and its ilk turn public transit crises into free advertising, they’re also subtly cheering the decline of systems that many literally cannot afford to lose.

The loss of public transit disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, even when it’s just temporary. To bike, you have to be able-bodied and to try out Uber or Lyft you need to be comfortable with their spotty records on sexual assault—a risk that’s real, however remote the possibility. Successful cities are multimodal, offering residents an array of transit options to meet their varied needs. The responses of these companies help capture some of that range, but we can’t let those upstarts wholly replace the more public solution they’re temporarily supplanting. A future in which private companies dictate the transportation options of all is one in which the needs of the few leave the many stranded.