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Increased transit delays in fall of 2021 and the potential impact on high school commutes

November 14, 2022
  • Alexander Din

In the fall of 2021, students in DCPS and public charter schools returned in-person, after spending roughly a year and a half learning at home. Students returned to school at roughly the same time that most of Metro’s 7000-series trains were removed from service due to safety concerns. The reduction in service doubled wait times at Metro stations and put additional strain on the Metro’s bus network. This is concerning because transportation vulnerability, including increased commute times or unreliable service, has been linked to issues with school attendance—which may result in loss of academic achievement.

Return to school happened while Metro service was reduced

In late August 2021, D.C. students in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools returned to in-person learning after having been virtual since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Shortly thereafter, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission ordered the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)’s 7000-series rail cars, which constitute 60 percent of all rail cars, out-of-service to make repairs for potentially faulty axles.1 This immediate reduction in service led to 30-minute headways (a headway is how frequently a Metro train or bus arrives)2 on all train lines except for the Red Line, which maintained its existing 15-minute headways. These longer headways likely led to longer commutes for D.C.’s public school students who relied on public transit, at nearly the same time that the students returned to in-person learning.

When they cannot walk to school, students in D.C.’s public schools generally rely on public transit or private transportation to school, unlike neighboring suburban districts which have large fleets of school buses. Although the factors are complex as to why students miss school, research suggests that transportation plays a role in whether a student attends class.3 Transportation vulnerability, which is when students come from households that lack transportation options (either access to a private vehicle or nearby, quality public transportation), can result in financial, social, or health consequences.4 When students cannot reliably or safely make it school, they are less likely to attend.5 Commuting times may also affect participation in valuable after-school or community-based programs, which provide a range of beneficial services such as ready meals, childcare, and additional social and academic learning opportunities.

How long did students wait to access service in fall of 2021?

Data for this analysis came from multiple sources. Reliability data on WMATA service was made available by Metro Hero,6 which compares WMATA’s data feed of how frequently a train or bus arrives to the scheduled headway to determine metrics such as observed headway: how long a transit-user actually waited for service. This analysis focuses on high school student commutes, as this group is the most likely to travel longer distances to school.7

Rail wait times

The first map, below, visualizes observed headway times in October 2021 by Metro station, as well as students’ walking distance to school, which is an indicator of how far students would have to travel on public transit.

Light green shades indicate wards where high school students live closer to school (measured by walking distance), while dark green areas represent wards where high school students live farther away from school.  High schools with student bodies who have greater commute times by Metrobus or Metrorail area are often located in wards where high school students who live there have greater walking distances.

Observed WMATA rail headways doubled from October 2019 (pre-pandemic) to October 2021 (when students were returning to in-person learning). For example, Red Line stations averaged 5-minute wait times in October 2019, which grew to 10-minute waits on average in October 2021. All other stations averaged 10-minute wait times in October 2019, which ballooned to 20-minutes on average in October 2021.

In October of 2021, the average headway at Metro stations used by students was 19 minutes. The Red Line had the shortest headways, with an average of 11 minutes. The Blue-Orange-Silver Lines, which travel east-west and through many high-poverty neighborhoods, had the longest observed headways: 21 minutes on average, with little variability.  

For each Metro station, larger circles on the map below indicate longer waiting times. Metro riders at the Benning Road, Deanwood, and Minnesota Avenue stations in Ward 7, including students, waited more than 20 minutes on average for a train to arrive during the return to in-person learning in the fall of 2021. These stations are particularly important because of a cluster of seven nearby high schools.

In comparison, students in wealthier Ward 3, which has fewer than one-third the number of students enrolled in public schools in Ward 7, waited an average of 11 minutes for a train to arrive. Students who may be travelling from across the District to Benjamin Banneker High School, an application school, waited for train service 17 minutes and 19 minutes on average at the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo and Shaw/Howard University Metro stations. Delays in service may have contributed to absenteeism during this time.

Bus wait times

The second map shows average wait times for buses by school, as well as the number of DCPS and public charter high school students who live in each ward.

Headways for buses tended to be longer in Wards 2, 3, and 6. In these areas, students and other commuters tended to wait 24 minutes or more, considerably longer than average bus headways in Ward 4 (17 minutes – the lowest) and Ward 1 (20 minutes). Wards 7 and 8 had average wait times of 24 minutes and 21 minutes, respectively, having neither the shortest wait times nor the longest.

Metro’s on-time performance rate for bus routes remained similar between Fiscal Year 2020 Q28 and Fiscal Year 2022 Q29 (Metro’s fiscal year begins on July 1 so quarters are two quarters ahead of the standard calendar year), but data by bus line are not available for 2019 and 2021.

Differing from the first map for Metrorail wait times, the second map, below, shows the average wait time for buses (not change over time) at high schools in Washington, D.C. During the return to school period in fall 2021, observed headways for buses were often longer than those for Metrorail. More than half of all bus routes had an average of 24-minute wait times or more: longer than any average wait for Metrorail. Many bus routes had longer average headways than all the Metrorail lines, which could have influenced students’ ability to attend school.

Student absenteeism has increased nationwide since the COVID-19 pandemic began.10 In the District, this issue was particularly acute because as students were navigating the return to school following a global pandemic that disrupted their lives for multiple school years, these same students also had to contend with reduced transportation to get to school. System-wide, headways for Metrorail averaged about once every 20 minutes in October 2021, a sharp increase from the 8-minute average headways of October 2019. Unreliable transportation systems or lengthy wait times may influence school choice11 or attendance.12 Early research in partnership with D.C. public charter schools indicates that boosting transportation funding may improve school attendance.13 The connection between transportation frequency and reliability and student attendance should be further evaluated, both here in D.C., and elsewhere in the country.

About the data

Data for this analysis came from multiple sources.  The author thanks James Pizzurro from Metro Hero who provided custom tabulations for Metro rail reliability data for the full months of October 2019 and October 2019, and for making Metro Hero an awesome application overall. This analysis would not have been possible without data from Metro Hero. Student enrollment data for school year 2021-22 came from EdScape and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. Data relating bus routes and metro stations to school was provided by My School DC. Spatial data to produce the maps in this article were provided by Open Data DC. Analysis was performed by the author.


  1. During the writing of this article, it was announced that the issue may actually be due to the rail tracks, not the axles on the 7000-series trains, see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2022/09/20/metro-cars-7000-series/
  2. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Glossary and Acronyms
  3. Stein, Marc L. and Jeffrey A. Gregg. (2019). “Missing Bus, Missing School: Establishing the Relationship Between Public Transit Use and Student Absenteeism.” American Educational Research Journal 56 (5): 1834-1860 DOI: 10.3102/0002831219833917
  4. Patel, Hersila H., Sarah E. Messiah, Eric Hansen, and Emily D’Agostino. (2021). “The relationship between transportation vulnerability, school attendance, and free transportation to an afterschool program for youth.” Transportation. 48: 2315-2333 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11116-020-10131-x
  5. Blackmon, Bret J. and Daphne S. Cain. (2015). “Case Manager Perspectives on the Effectiveness of an Elementary School Truancy Intervention.” School Social Work Journal 40 (1): 1-22.
  6. Metro Hero: https://www.dcmetrohero.com/dashboard
  7. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). 2022. “EdScape: Trends in Distance to School by Grade Band.” DME. Retrieved from https://edscape.dc.gov/page/enrollment-patterns-trends-distance-school-grade-band
  8. Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority Performance Report FY 2022 Q2.
  9. Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority Performance Report FY 2022 Q2.
  10. Metro Hero: https://www.dcmetrohero.com/dashboard
  11. Blagg, Kristin, Matthew M Chingos, Sean P. Corcoran, Sarah A. Cordes, Joshua Cowen, Patrick Denice, Betheny, Gross, Jane Arnold Lincove, Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, Amy Ellen Schwartz, and Jon Valant. (2018). “The Road to School: How Far Students Travel to School in the Choice-Rich Cities of Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City, and Washington, DC.” The Urban Institute.
  12. Blagg, Kristin, Victoria Rosenboom, and Matthew M. Chingos. (2018). “The Extra Mile” The Urban Institute.
  13. Empower K12. (2022). “Chronic Absenteeism is Up. Bright Spots Use These 6 Strategies.” https://www.empowerk12.org/blog/absenteeism-bright-spots


Alexander Din

D.C. Policy Center

Alex is a Social Science Analyst for the Office of Policy Development & Research for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and an adjunct lecture for the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s (UMBC) Master of Professional Studies in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Alex previously worked for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) as a Housing Research Analyst and for Dewberry supporting mapping projects for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). He grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland and now lives in Washington, D.C. 

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