Transit advocate backs bus-only lane as traffic solution for D.C.’s busy 16th Street route

Robert Thomson
Columnist March 19

A prominent advocacy group for smart growth and transit challenges the views that a letter-writer and I expressed about the future of bus service on one of the District’s busiest commuter routes.

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

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Sixteenth Street buses are squeezing out all the capacity they can under current conditions. There’s no more room to add additional capacity for cars to the road without harming neighborhoods adjacent to 16th Street NW (nor is driving an option for many residents along 16th Street anyway).

Yet our region continues to grow, and more people need to commute to downtown D.C. from D.C. and Silver Spring neighborhoods all along the corridor. What are we going to do to address that?


Buses travel north and south on busy 16th Street NW. Some residents want a bus-only lane to ease the commute. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The 16th Street bus lanes proposal, in which the current reversible rush-hour lane from Arkansas Avenue NW to downtown would be transformed into a dedicated bus lane, is our best option. With the rush-hour bus lane, we would increase our capacity to move the greatest number of people through this important corridor and with the least disruption to commuters using different transportation modes.

A 2013 feasibility study for the District Department of Transportation showed that creating a bus lane in that stretch of 16th Street would still leave two lanes for cars and only slightly increase delays. Meanwhile, buses, which move half of rush-hour travelers on 16th Street, would move 30 percent faster with a dedicated lane and, most important, would increase capacity for [moving people through the corridor] by 10 percent.

All of this can be done without sacrificing any parking spaces or narrowing 16th Street to one lane for cars in the peak direction south of U Street NW, as the letter-writer in your column suggests.

The same 50-foot right-of-way along this corridor has sufficient room south of U Street to be restriped for three travel lanes in the peak direction during rush hour, and to allow the non-peak direction to remain as it is — with one parking lane and one travel lane. Traffic volume is not as high south of U Street as it is to the north, where street parking isn’t allowed during rush hour in either direction.

As to your other points about bringing signal prioritization to the corridor and increasing the number of Metro supervisors along 16th Street to improve the efficiency of bus spacing, we agree, but it’s not enough.

Buses get stuck in traffic and are thrown off their schedules for two big reasons: They are stopped at red lights, and they are held back from moving through intersections because there are a bunch of cars in front of them.

Dedicated bus lanes free up buses from being stuck behind a line of cars trying to get through an intersection, and signal priority gets the bus through the intersection. Together, bus lanes and signal priority do more than the benefits they offer individually to get buses moving.

When we can do this with a marginal effect on traffic congestion, but a real increase in overall capacity, it’s a win for everyone.

What should be our next move? Do the detailed evaluations, approvals and plans to assess and implement a bus lane. DDOT should also expedite implementation of transit-signal priority, which is scheduled to be operating in the next two years.

The current status of the bottled-up transit service on 16th Street leaves more than half of the corridor’s commuters with a substandard option that is not only unacceptable, but also fixable. Why would we be so biased against effective solutions to make a corridor work for a majority of its travelers?

Cheryl Cort, policy director, Coalition for Smarter Growth

DG: A woman who lived at 16th and U streets in the late 1980s told me the Metrobuses were referred to as the “Banana Bus Lines,” because they always arrived in bunches. Many of today’s riders who try to board in the Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights neighborhoods and farther south say that’s the most predictable part of the rush-hour bus service.

But to really succeed, a transit service needs the schedules to be predictable, not the bus bunching and crowding.

Metro and the District Department of Transportation consider 16th Street part of a regional bus priority corridor network, but DDOT has not yet presented an official proposal for bus-only lanes on 16th Street.

Maryland-to-D.C. commuters and D.C. residents along the corridor need to see such a proposal to make a proper evaluation. DDOT’s abortive experience with reconfiguring Wisconsin Avenue NW highlights some of the difficulties in translating what looks good on a map into what works for commuters in rush-hour traffic.

Before bus lanes arrive on 16th Street, drivers and bus riders alike need to know the District will be committed to enforcing new rules on lane use, parking and turning.

Bus-only lanes in an urban core are a block-by-block experience in engineering and transportation politics. If 16th Street becomes an initial experience, it needs to be a good one. Otherwise it could poison the environment for other transit improvements.

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