D.C region’s commuters need better bus service but plans encounter many roadblocks

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 26

Kishan Putta, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the Dupont Circle area, has a cause: He wants better bus service for people who travel along the 16th Street corridor in Northwest Washington.

He has realized part of his ambition. Metrobus managers were able to create a short loop of extra rush-hour service last year in a particularly congested part of the corridor between downtown D.C. and Columbia Road NW. This service was on top of a big improvement in 2009, when Metro created the S9 limited stop service connecting Silver Spring with downtown via 16th Street.

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. View Archive

Even with all that, Putta says, it’s not enough to accommodate everyone who wants to take a bus along this very popular commuter route. The S Line, a collection of routes using 16th Street, stars frequently in the alerts issued by Metrobus about service problems, as in this one from last week: “Due to traffic congestion at 16th & Columbia Rd NW, buses are experiencing up to 20-minute delays in both directions.”

Not only do buses have trouble staying on schedule, they also can be so crowded when they reach stops that no one can board.

Metro Assistant General Manager Jack Requa says the transit authority puts 42 buses on the route between 8 and 9
a.m. each weekday. “There really isn’t much more room to put more buses on the street,” he says.


Riders make their way via Metrobus to their destinations on a soggy day. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

What next?

The best ways to add capacity are to operate bigger buses and to give buses priority over other vehicles when traveling on 16th Street. Buses can be given priority by adjusting traffic lights in their favor and by setting aside a lane for their use. Putta, who spoke about this at a D.C. Council hearing last week, would like to see an experiment during rush hours with a dedicated lane on a stretch of 16th Street south of Arkansas Avenue NW.

This is a good idea, but at the same time, the proposal illustrates why dedicated bus lanes here and elsewhere are so difficult to create.

For one thing, the agency that controls the buses — Metro — doesn’t control the street. Several agencies, particularly the District Department of Transportation and the D.C. Police Department, need to be involved in setting up the lanes and keeping other vehicles — including parked cars — out of them during rush hours.

The rush-hour bus lanes on 16th Street would have no physical barriers separating them from the regular travel lanes. Provisions would need to be made for vehicles to make right turns, even during the peak periods.

And all that for a relatively short stretch of 16th Street. North of Arkansas Avenue, 16th Street has four rather than five lanes, and there is a median down the middle, making it too narrow to reserve a lane for buses, even during limited hours.

The task of integrating a new bus lane into an existing street pattern often proves problematic. Transit advocates in Montgomery County are calling for the establishment of a pilot program of bus lanes on Route 29.

But that doesn’t sit well with people in the Four Corners community who fear that proposed changes in the lane configuration would block them from using their own neighborhood streets.

Several promising experiments are being prepared in Virginia. Metro is working with local transportation officials to set up one pilot program along Route 7, a heavily traveled commuter route. By summer 2015, Metro officials hope to have a signal priority system in operation at 25 intersections. The traffic signal system will give a priority to buses at those intersections, which should make it easier for them to stay on schedule.

Then there’s a somewhat lower-tech idea: Open up highway shoulders for commuter bus use during rush hours. The Virginia Department of Transportation hopes to launch a pilot program this year in which buses would be able to operate on shoulders along several stretches of Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway.

Although this may sound simple compared with creating a signal priority system, it’s still expensive to plan and operate. Arrangements must be made to protect motorists who might break down along the highway. The shoulder surface must be improved to accommodate the buses. Signs must be installed to make all travelers aware of the special use. Bus drivers must be trained to use the route.

All these obstacles might sound discouraging. They are. Progress on better bus service has been slow. But this is worth the effort. Aside from encouraging people to telecommute, programs that improve bus service are the most likely ways to ease the task of getting to and from work.

The great age of road building is over, and the cost of adding rail service, such as Metro’s new Silver Line, is so staggering that few governments will pursue such projects.

By comparison, bus services are much more affordable and much more adaptable to changing needs.

Now: Find the money, take advantage of new technologies, emphasize safe travel and accommodate community concerns.

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