Changes proposed for D.C. bus system

When the D.C. Circulator launched its first two bus routes in 2005, its mission was to keep it simple: Operate easily recognizable buses on easy to understand routes illustrated with simple signs. Use an easy to remember fare of $1 and create a schedule that didn’t have to be memorized because the buses would arrive about every 10 minutes.

Simple was successful. Six years later, the Circulator has gone viral. The bus system is the fourth largest in the D.C. region, based on the number of passengers. Everybody, it seems, wants Circulators for their own communities, those along the current routes want more service, and those who could lose service don’t want to see it taken away.

The District Department of Transportation has done a study to assess the state of the bus system and look to the next decade.

Adding and subtracting

Here are the study’s highlights: Two routes, a seasonal line begun in 2006 and the north-south route created in 2005, are recommended for elimination. One of those already has been halted. Hours should be adjusted on several routes. Many buses are starting to show their age and will need overhauls. Fares need to be increased. Some routes should be modified and some stops eliminated. Some corridors outside the city’s core offer potential for expanded service.

Original intent

The Circulator, according to a 2003 proposal, would be “a simple, inexpensive, and easily navigable surface transit system that complements Metrobus and Metrorail.” It would not duplicate Metro service but would improve the District’s ability to move tourists around the city’s core and link centers of commercial, entertainment and cultural activity. Circulators could reduce congestion from tour buses and cars.

The service, using distinctive black, gray and red buses, began in 2005 with two routes: an east-west link between Union Station and Georgetown and a north-south line connecting the convention center at Mount Vernon Square with the Southwest Waterfront.

By 2010, six routes were in operation. One line, the Smithsonian-National Gallery loop around the National Mall, was attracting only about 10 riders an hour during its seasonal service in 2010 and has been eliminated, in accordance with one of the study’s recommendations. The transportation department says the money saved will be shifted to the Union Station-Navy Yard route, to increase its hours of service.

Who rides

Although one of the primary original goals of the Circulator was to serve visitors, 79 percent of riders live in the District, according to the city’s rider survey. Eleven percent are from Maryland and three percent from Virginia. A quarter make less than $20,000; about 12 percent make more than $100,000.

More than half of riders use the Circulator to commute. More than half take trips greater than 10 blocks. But the Circulators serve multiple purposes for travelers: 42 percent said they use them to reach shopping and dining, and an equal percentage said they use the buses to reach recreational and cultural activities.

Most pay with SmarTrip cards. About one in four made a transfer from another bus, and about 14 percent transferred from Metrorail. Many use a variety of passes and discounts. About 17 percent of the riders in 2010 just paid the cash fare.

The future

Short-term improvements to the original system: To speed travel, eliminate some bus stops so there are no more than three or four per mile. Move the Union Station terminus out of the Union Station parking garage to a more convenient spot on Columbus Circle. Set a system-wide service standard of 15 hours per day, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with additional weekend hours on routes that serve nightlife or sporting events.

The Convention Center-Southwest Waterfront route partially duplicates Metro service and carries too few riders, according to the study, although it had more than half a million passengers last year. The study recommends the line be eliminated.

The plan for the next decade includes route expansion that would follow commercial and population growth beyond the city’s monuments and central business district. It’s possible a Circulator route might be set up along the future route of a streetcar, then discontinued once the streetcar begins operating.

Standards include maintaining the 10-minute schedule, at least on paper. The actual target would be to have 80 percent of the buses arriving within 15 minutes. Ridership would be considered adequate if an average of 20 people board a bus per hour.

Fares should be set high enough so a quarter of the cost of providing the bus service is recovered. The current $1 regular fare should rise to $2 for those paying cash and to $1.50 for SmarTrip users. (Metrobus charges a regular fare of $1.70 cash and $1.50 with SmarTrip.)

In the next decade, the Circulator could grow to serve new corridors, while several existing routes could be extended. On its south end, the Union Station-Navy Yard could be extended east of the Anacostia River, and on its north end to the emerging NoMa (north of Massachusetts) district. The Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn line could be extended to U Street and Howard University.

New routes could be developed along these corridors: Union Station-North Mall-Georgetown, Union Station-South Mall-Arlington Cemetery, Dupont Circle-Southwest Waterfront-Navy Yard, Adams Morgan-H Street NE, Congress Heights-St. Elizabeths Campus-H Street NE, Tenleytown-Brookland, Tenleytown-Silver Spring, Minnesota Avenue-Skyland (at Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road SE).

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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