D.C. Circulator considering new routes, new fares

A Circulator bus operates on the route through Adams Morgan at cherry blossom time. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)
A Circulator bus operates on the route through Adams Morgan at cherry blossom time. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Managers of the D.C. Circulator bus system are set to re-introduce a route around the National Mall in 2015, but they also will consider other new routes and expansions of existing routes.

The original intent of the city’s bus system was to connect activity centers and that remains a top priority, D.C. transportation planner Circe Torruellas said during a Tuesday night forum to discuss the service’s future.

Planners often talk about whether transportation services should help steer community development or respond to it. Torruellas said the key for starting Circulators is to capture the right moment in development when both the neighborhoods and the transit system are likely to flourish as a result of a premier bus service.

Since the Circulator service was founded in 2005, managers and planners with the District Department of Transportation have had experience with all the possibilities. The route that remains the most successful in ridership is the east-west link between Georgetown and Union Station, an original route. The service also had a hit when it started the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square route. The Circulator took over a Metrobus route to play off and also encourage development along Barracks Row and the Navy Yard district, with a route connecting Union Station and Nationals Park.

The old north-south route connecting the Convention Center with the Southwest Waterfront anticipated development that didn’t arrive on schedule. That service was cancelled in 2011 because of low ridership, despite protests from people in the Waterfront neighborhoods. Now, a Convention Center-Waterfront connection is among the list of possibilities for future Circulator routes. Other items on the wish list would extend current routes. The Union Station-Georgetown route could be pushed north on Wisconsin Avenue. The Navy Yard-Union Station route could be pushed north into the expanding office and residential neighborhood known as NoMa. The Potomac Avenue-Skyland route, the newest of the Circulators, could be pushed southwest from Skyland toward St. Elizabeths Hospital and the Congress Heights Metro station.

Just how active the activity centers have become is not the only issue on Circulator expansion. Transit managers have gained experience with other variables that determine a route’s success. For example, when the Mall route is restored, it will be accompanied by a better publicity campaign designed to make the service more obvious to tourists. Torruellas said DDOT is working with the National Park Service to design Circulator stops for easy ingress and egress, something that should limit traffic difficulties along Madison and Jefferson drives, which are part of the planned Mall route.

Much of the Circulator’s development has conformed to the long-range plan DDOT published in 2011. (See a pdf of the Circulator development plan.) One thing that hasn’t happened: The plan recommended raising the cash fare from $1 to $2 and the SmarTrip fare to $1.50. That’s been under discussion ever since, but has yet to be approved by the D.C. government. While the cash fare would double, tourists might well prefer putting two dollar bills into the fare box rather than fishing around for a dollar bill and two quarters. For locals, a fare increase would mess with the Circulator’s competitive standing regarding Metrobus service, though the Metro board is scheduled to consider a bus fare increase in March.

Circulator ridership fluctuates by season, with the peaks coming in the summer. But the overall ridership peaked in July 2011, with a monthly ridership of 546,130, and has declined slightly since then. Fare increases do have a dampening effect on ridership, as Metro officials know.

In addition to new routes and fares, transit managers also are discussing whether another emblem of the Circulator, the schedule that calls for buses to arrive every 10 minutes, also should change. Should today’s routes with lower ridership have a frequency of every 12 to 15 minutes? Should a new generation of routes abandon the 10-minute rule so the service can fit the new routes’ needs?

Responding to changing needs is a hallmark of good service, as long as the service doesn’t change so much that it loses some of the elements that caused riders to define it as a premium service in the first place.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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