Inter-Peak Headways

My bugaboo, obviously, is the frequency of transit. It’s everything. I am Peter, the Rock, as a disciple of the preachings of Jarrett Walker’s “frequency is freedom.”

London Reconnections has recently done a few very good and in-depth series of pieces on the current and anticipated headways run by Transport for London (TfL) on the London Underground, Overground, DLR, and Crossrail. There’s one paragraph in particular that jumped out at me (emphasis mine):

Something that has become much more significant in recent years is the inter-peak service – the service from the end of the morning peak to the start of the evening peak. Apart from being important for leisure activity this service is also used by people who are travelling in work time. This means that the value of of their time (as perceived by their employer) is much higher than the value put on the individual of their own leisure time. It is also very important as part of the service provided to attract employers to locate in London.

This is incredibly important! The fact is that even “commuters” don’t spend every day arriving at nine am, sitting in a cubicle, and departing at five o’clock pm on the nose. The realization that travel habits vary, to say the least, is why the “rush hour” periods of the Washington, DC area’s Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) are 7-9:30am and 3:30-7pm (even if I think those need extending later in both cases).

On the other hand, WMATA’s “off-peak” headways are on the order of 12 minutes. That’s five trains per hour (tph). Theoretically this would allow for six minute headways on interlined portions of the network, but the service quality of WMATA is totally unable to meet such spacing standards, nor are many important trip pair locations located on the same interlined portion. What WMATA has clearly not realized is that people leave their offices. They travel to an on-site client. They go from one neighborhood to another for lunch, then back again. They have meetings at third locations. They don’t all work in offices, either!

As it stands, a traveler coming into National Airport at 1pm could easily wait 15 minutes for a train, in the middle of the day, in the capital of “the most powerful nation on earth.” And if he or she wanted to go anywhere not a direct ride away – north of Fort Totten, south of L’Enfant Plaza on the Green Line, anywhere whatsoever on the Red Line – those waiting times could easily double. Nearly 30 minutes spent waiting for an urban heavy rail system, at midday!

Besides the embarrassment factor, this is clearly a detriment to mobility for everyone, but particularly those who don’t work a traditional 9-to-5 white-collar job. And for those who do, it’s incredibly limiting. Perhaps you work in Crystal City and need to visit your parent corporation in Reston. With bus headways what they are, this journey becomes an onerous one, and one best attempted only at rush hour. At the other end, you’re stuck. Either the meeting doesn’t happen, or the employee is less efficient, or can’t get to their job, or ends up buying a car because relying on WMATA outside of peak commuting hours is 6-5 and pick ‘em.

It’s clear that WMATA doesn’t realize that in every single way, the severe limitations on midday frequency hurt business interests, personal mobility, and the region as a whole. TfL is helping to make London attractive to businesses and competitive on a global scale. WMATA can’t even compete with driving to Herndon. And it behooves the District, the agency, and the region at large to take a much more aggressive stance towards headways during the day.