Washington's Investment in Faster Bus Service Should be a National Model

» Simple, cheap tools can dramatically improve day-to-day transit operations.

Of the projects selected yesterday to receive TIGER discretionary grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the national capital region’s proposed improved bus service investments, which picked up a total of $58.8 million, may be the least sexy. Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland won’t be getting streetcars with the cash, as are Tucson or Dallas; nor will they see the creation of a big new transportation center, like New York City or St. Paul.

But the region will see significantly improved bus service on thirteen transit corridors as a result of the new funding. At a relatively minimal cost, commuters who rely on the Metrobus system will be able to take advantage of added information and faster commutes on some of the area’s most traffic-prone streets. The amelioration of operations will make the District’s buses all the more convenient.

But the improvements made possible here shouldn’t be seen as special: they should be standard on bus systems from Washington to Wichita. The federal government should be handing out grants to perform similar upgrades for every urban bus transit system.

The total of $83 million committed to the improvements (of which local governments will contribute $25 million) is split roughly in thirds between Washington, Maryland, and Virginia. The central city will see upgrades on the four primary bus corridors heading away from downtown, including Wisconsin Avenue, 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, and H Street; access for buses coming across the Potomac River from Virginia will be eased as well. Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties are in line for improvements for circumferential routes along Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard, as well as along the radial corridors of U.S. 1 and Addison Road. In Virginia, spending is planned for Route 7 between Tysons Corner and Alexandria, which sees heavy transit traffic (and deserves a more significant upgrade) and the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway, which will connect a newly developing zone to Metro service.

The DOT is also paying for a new transit center at Langley Crossroads in Prince George’s County to allow commuters faster transfers between bus lines and eventually with the Purple Line light rail.

Though each of the funded corridors will see a specific set of improvements, the general idea is the same: use technology and lane separation to improve the service provided by buses. In some places, that will mean independent transitways in which buses are able to operate entirely outside of the automobile lanes. In other corridors, buses will get signal priority and jump lanes at intersections, cheap investments that can make transit faster than cars during rush hour. Customers will benefit from a cleaned-up and information-infused commuting environment with new buses, expanded shelters, and automatically updating signage that shows when the next bus will arrive.

Unfortunately, these conveniences are not typical in most American bus networks, even on the most popular lines. But they should be. Indeed, while next bus information, high-quality shelters, and reserved running ways are in the United States typically associated with the nebulous and rare “bus rapid transit” concept, in other wealthy countries they’re considered part of the standards of typical bus service.

This isn’t to disparage Washington’s investment, it’s simply to point out that we need much more of the same, in every city from coast to coast. The federal government would do well to invest in a bus upgrades fund in the next transportation bill.

Of course, getting the specifics right is essential. Buses can be incorporated into the streetscape in a number of ways, with widely diverging results. The District has not shown itself to be perfect at getting street construction right, considering the less-than-ideal design of a new streetcar line on H Street that is currently underway.

Several D.C. commentators were disappointed by the lack of funds for the $76 million K Street Transitway, which if built would be something of the core of the regional Metrobus network. But that project isn’t fully thought-through. The city’s parallel investment in a 37-mile streetcar system, three of whose lines would converge on K Street, would produce an overrun corridor incapable of handling the number of vehicles using it. That project deserves a once-over before it’s implemented; the DOT was probably right not to finance it with a TIGER grant.

Bus Improvements for the Washington Region
Map

Image above: Washington Metrobus, from Flickr user JLaw45 (cc)

13 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • david vartanoff

    The K Street video is so sad. We HAD separate lanes for buses there in the 50s/60s! So now we will build them again. sigh. This is not to say it is a bad idea just a lament for what has been lost and now will cost millions to be retrieved. As to the general applicability of what used to be called “enhanced bus” YES! highly useful and many of the best attributes should be really easy and cheap to implement. Even without the mini medians, strictly enforced reserved lane ROWs, Nextbus or clone arrival systems and nicer bus shelters can make the whole process more inviting.
    In detail, while actual arrival signage at selected stops is nice, a cheaper alternative is posting a dedicated phone # which will give the data thus the installation/maintenance cost is a decal — no electricity.
    The K Street corridor as shown is certainly a good candidate, Viers Mill too.

  • Mike

    This is definitely good stuff and should be a no-brainer in the right bus corridors. But it really only makes sense on select high-ridership trunk lines. I’ve never been to Witchita, but does it really have any such bus lines?

  • Mike, A better question would be could it have such lines if transit weren’t relegated to second class status?

    Wichita doesn’t have low transit ridership because it’s too small, or because people there don’t like transit. Wichita has low transit ridership because Wichita’s transportation network is built to encourage driving and discourage transit.

  • Mike

    Again, I don’t know Witchita. But the design of a transport network is not the only determinant of whether transit works. Land use is equally — or more — important. If Witchita has the sort of low density, auto oriented land use that is so prevalent in the midwest, then forget about having or creating an inexpensive high-ridership bus trunk line with the sort of investments that Yonah describes above.

  • Oh sure, land use is at least as important. I agree completely. But the point is that neither land use nor infrastructure are accidents. It’s all the result of policies invented in order to produce a specific result. Different results are possible, if we change our policies.

  • Matt

    We have a lot of these improvements happening in Minneapolis, too. While our MetroTransit system is unbelievably over-complicated, new technology such as GPS-enabled signs and technology to improve our dozens of miles of bus shoulders sure is helping.

  • Someone on one of the D.C. blogs mentioned it in Twitter, but didn’t the “rapid bus” idea originate in Los Angeles? Makes sense since Catoe ran that transit agency before he came to D.C.

    • Wad

      The Los Angeles Metro Rapid plan was under way before John Catoe joined Metro. It was operational around the time he was named deputy CEO under Roger Snoble.

      Rapid Bus, though, had been around for decades in Los Angeles as limited-stop bus service.

  • cph

    Rapid bus in LA came about several years before Catoe ran Metro.

  • Erik H.

    It’s too bad that here in Portland, our transit, planning and municipal “leadership” actually refuses free money for these projects, and goes out to insult bus riders because they are not “choice” riders on the light rail and streetcar systems.

    TriMet and Metro actually encourage folks to DRIVE to a massive, sprawling park-and-ride lot (of course, fare-free – TriMet doesn’t force you to pay to park) and ride a train, rather than improve local bus service that would actually encourage folks to walk out their front door to the nearest bus stop. As a result, thousands of TriMet riders happily drive past dozens of buses and bus stops, and TriMet is happy to oblige.

    TriMet is preparing to spend another billion on a light rail line from Portland to Tigard which will have massive construction impacts, and much of it will have to be built as a subway, while it bypasses many transit friendly neighborhoods (such as Multnomah Village, favoring a route that would serve the Barbur Boulevard Free Parking Lot instead). For just $50 million – or one-twentieth of the cost – we could have BRT from Portland not just to Tigard but all the way to King City, providing service that is just as good as light rail, with minimal construction impact, and riders would have identical amenities as someone boarding or riding a MAX train. With the cost savings, we could build 20 such corridors – the 57 to Forest Grove, the 33 to Oregon City, the 4 and 9 routes to Gresham, the 72 and 77 cross-town routes, the 54, 56 and 62 routes to Beaverton, Washington Square and Murrayhill, the 76 from Beaverton to Tualatin…

  • Matt S

    Erik, I can relate. Mpls just finalized the route for a new Southwest LRT line to suburban Eden Prairie, choosing a route which bypasses the dense areas within the city because tunnels were too expensive and disruptive. The argument was made that the Uptown district and all of near-southwest Mpls already had excellent bus service (true). So we end up with it being a commuter LRT line without connecting dense urban nodes (which are simultaneously high ridership areas and regional destinations) to our rail network. Kind of sad.

  • Matt S

    I think part of the problem is that it is so much easier to build trains where there’s already easy right-of-way (abandoned rail yards, unused highway medians, etc) than it is to build it underneath vibrant streets. Yet this “How are we going to pay for it now?” question gets in the way of the “What’s the best thing for the next 100 years?” question.

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