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