The bus systems in DC, Baltimore, and Maryland are so inadequate that businesses are less likely to locate here and job hunters less likely to find employment. That’s the conclusion of an October report from the Greater Washington Partnership: “Rethinking The Bus: Five Essential Steps For Improving Mobility In The Capital Region.” According to the Partnership, many fewer commuters are using the bus now than in 2010, each transit authority is delivering poor performance, and each city is doing comically little to create roads that deliver superior service levels to bus riders. This report concludes the bus is the worst way to commute and it’s that way by design.
DC Buses Go Slow and The Get Stuck in Car Traffic
DC has 3.2 miles of dedicated bus lanes, 1.6 miles each way. That’s worse than Richmond and Baltimore. Virginia’s capital city has 3.4 miles for bus-only travel, and Charm City has 5.9 miles of the usually red-painted roadway. DC tried a “pop-up” bus lane in Brookland during the Red Line shutdown this summer, but that was a failed experiment, lacking clear signage or enforcement.
Without road space dedicated to buses, commuters riding them suffer the same gridlock as folks in their cars. Buses in DC travel at an average of 10.15 mph. That’s slower than the average of the 19 largest U.S. bus systems after NYC (10.98 mph). That doesn’t seem like a huge gap until you read that WMATA buses have gotten slower in recent years, ten percent slower in 2016 than in 2010.
Something transit agencies can do to speed up bus traffic, without investing a ton in road modifications, is give buses priority at an intersection. With a dedicated signal, buses can proceed on Green before the Green that starts other traffic. DC does better with this, offering 227 priority signals in the WMATA network. That’s better than Richmond (55) and Baltimore (26). However, there’s limited value in this priority unless the bus has free road space to get to pole position at the intersection.
WMATA Releases Misleading Performance Statistics
According to the Partnership, “Most transit agencies in the United States (including GRTC [Richmond]) consider a bus on time if arrives between 1 minute early and 5 minutes late.” But, DC and Maryland are outliers. “Both WMATA and MTA use a wider window: arrivals between 2 minutes early and 7 minutes late are considered ‘on time.’”
Between the DMV’s three cities, there’s no standard reporting system for bus performance statistics. The Partnership asked around and got some figures. Baltimore’s MTA is 66.4 percent on time compared to an 80 percent goal. Richmond sets the same on-time goal, but their transit agency recently re-did the bus system. They reported a 75 percent on average over past three years in the old design. WMATA reported 79 percent on-time from July 2017 through March 2018. The fishy part is their stated goal was 79 percent. When reported statistics exactly match stated goals, some skepticism should be applied to their methodology. Of course, the methods aren’t disclosed.
WMATA is Planning a Bus Re-Design
Metro is spending $2.2 million on a study to guide modifications of the bus system in DC. With Metroway, the study has a local peer service to research. Metroway is a local, rapid bus service for the Arlington/Alexandria corridor that lacks Metrorail coverage. The bus service, which boasts stations with shelter and dedicated road furniture like curb-outs, shuttles people successfully North and South in Crystal City.
Metro has a lot of options to consider for a new bus system. As the Washington Post noted this summer, WMATA “could produce a plan calling for a more extensive network of bus lanes, for example, or service adjustments to maximize ridership or coverage, or even consolidation of underused routes. The main goal is to establish a unified regional plan.”
Signs Point to Reduced Bus Coverage in DC
Reports from the folks performing that WMATA study says Metro might just cut service and limit the goals of the system. Metro has been doing this with Metrorail, steering into the skid of reduced ridership with service cuts that lean the system further toward commuter rail away from urban mobility service. Officials did this quietly at first but now admit it openly during Board meetings.
This excerpt from WTOP is instructive:
“‘Ridership has stabilized on the rail side, it is declining on the bus side,’ General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told the Virginia General Assembly Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability on Wednesday. He blamed ride-hailing, increased telecommuting and other issues for a continuing decline in bus ridership — a trend that he is not hopeful will reverse anytime soon.”
WMATA Bus May Follow Rail in Transforming to a Commuter System
Modifications to WMATA bus operations may follow the same pattern of degradation as Metrorail service.
The quality of the service worsened because of deferred maintenance and disruptive, emergency interventions. The service comes under competition from rival, private-sector services that offer increasingly appealing value propositions to the commuters with extra money and options. Those marginal riders abandon the system, leaving fewer passengers and fewer instances where the service is “needed.” WMATA leadership points to the private services, relevant to bus ridership just as much or more than rail, and says Metro should serve the core riders: the rush-hour commuters with routes in hub-and-spoke and highly-trafficked corridor routes.
DC’s Economy Needs a Bigger, Better Bus Service
There’s always going to be a debate about how bus routes cover a population. Frequency vs. coverage area, for example. With WMATA, there’s this Chicken-or-Egg debate where signs point to policymakers willing to let off-peak users use new mobility solutions from for-profit companies. But, with buses—as the Greater Washington Partnership report shows—there’s significant harm to downsized ambitions and skeleton service patterns.
“The Capital Region needs to rethink its bus systems. Although advances have been made in all three metro areas, overall, the region has not fully maximized the potential of its investments and offered service that is desirable for many consumers. Travel preferences are changing. The proliferation of on-call services has reduced tolerance for long waits or waits without information, and parking apps have made it easier than ever to find and pay for a parking space.”
Read the full report to see what DC can do specifically to make the buses better.