Correction to This Article
A Dec. 27 graphic about improvements desired by bus riders published with an article on Metrobus service reported that 31 percent of riders surveyed desired more frequent stops. It should have said more frequent service.
Progress Has Passed Metrobus By
Outdated System Is Plagued by Unreliable Schedules, Inefficient Routes

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

As shifting housing patterns, job growth and an influx of residents have transformed metropolitan Washington over the past three decades, Metrobus has done little to adapt, remaining essentially the same system since opening in 1973.

The nation's fifth-largest bus system still follows the basic contours of the D.C. streetcar lines of the 1950s.

Each day, 443,000 passengers -- many without options -- grapple with a transportation system of last resort. Buses are so unreliable, even Metro's chief executive has acknowledged that the schedules are fiction. Riders must transfer multiple times to reach their destinations. One bus line averages 84 passengers per trip, while another carries four.

A mismatch between demand and service has produced hidden rush hours, with standing room only on some buses at 11 on weeknights or 3 p.m. on weekends. Metrobus officials have not analyzed ridership on some weekday routes in three years. And it's been five years since they monitored passenger loads on weekend routes, Metro officials say.

The problems at Metrobus -- outdated operations, under-investment and an unresponsive bureaucracy -- come in addition to other troubles at the area's transit agency. Its board of directors took steps this month to remove Chief Executive Richard A. White, who has been criticized for failing to hold staff members accountable and taking too long to resolve problems.

For most of its history, the bus system has been overshadowed by the subway, which carries tourists and downtown professionals and draws the attention of Congress. Transit officials have repeatedly promised to put Metrobus on equal footing with Metrorail, but the buses have never been able to attract the same kind of money and institutional support. None of the 12 members of the Metro board of directors is a regular Metrobus rider; some can't remember the last time they rode one.

"Metrobus really is the poor stepchild," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the District on the Metro board.

Metro statistics show that compared with subway riders, bus passengers are more likely to be black women and people with lower incomes who are less likely to own a car.

Marianne Harding, 53, who commutes daily between Capitol Hill and 14th and U streets NW, believes the problems of Metrobus are linked to demographics. "It doesn't escape my notice that on many of the buses I ride, I'm the only white passenger," she said. "Buses serve lower-income neighborhoods. And it makes me think, Is there a connection?"

Metro officials say that they have made significant improvements, including the installation of SmarTrip fare boxes, and that the bus system will benefit from new technology and equipment coming into place in the next several years. "We're very, very serious about giving the buses a strong level of management attention, of moving forward to make this bus system a good system, an excellent system," White said.

Failing Grades

At White's request this year, a panel of bus managers from Houston, Toronto, New York and San Mateo, Calif., outlined a series of deficiencies with Metrobus, pointing to faulty operations and aging equipment in the 1,460-bus fleet.

"You need to invest in your bus service," panel leader Michael Scanlon told the Metro board. "You have a case of a rubber band stretched too far and about to snap in some cases."

Metrobus is failing even by its own standards. An internal audit showed the system did not meet seven of its eight goals last year, with too many breakdowns, accidents, incomplete runs, passenger complaints and absent employees.

Meanwhile, the average Metrobus is more than 10 years old, twice the age recommended by experts. And although it carries fewer riders than the subway, the bus system draws more than twice as many complaints. In October, the latest month for which data were available, the transit system logged 657 rail complaints and 1,456 bus complaints.

In surveys, Metrobus riders say their biggest concern is that buses stay on schedule. But managers have no idea whether buses run on time; they do not monitor performance.

And the expert panel found that Metro employs too few supervisors to fix service problems. The system has 20 street supervisors to manage 1,245 buses that run during peak travel periods. By contrast, Ride On in Montgomery County has 30 street supervisors to monitor a bus system about one-seventh the size.

"Once a bus leaves a garage, unless the bus supervisor sees something or the bus operator calls it in, we're essentially unaware of what that bus is doing or where it is," said Jack Requa, Metro's chief operating officer for buses, who cited the system's limited resources. "Every year, budgetwise, has been tight. . . . We make small improvements. These outsiders come in, and they see it in a different light."

The expert panel flagged another problem tied to too few supervisors: Buses travel in herds, disregarding the schedule. Metro blames the problem, which it calls "bunching," on traffic congestion. But passengers complain about it happening late at night, when there is no congestion.

One veteran Metrobus driver, who asked not to be identified because she hadn't been authorized by Metro to speak, said some drivers do it intentionally so the bus ahead will pick up the passengers. "A lot of people just want to get by. They don't want to work," she said.

For riders, bunching is a widespread frustration.

"If you're taking a line where the buses are spaced 15 minutes apart, and you get to the stop and you've just missed two that are running together, you have to wait there for another half-hour," said Wesley Flamer-Binion, a 24-year-old District native who often grows so frustrated that he hails a cab. "I want to take public transportation. But the buses are just not reliable."

Since the criticism from the panel, White has asked the Metro board for $2.8 million for additional supervisors and dispatchers next year. But he said Metrobus needs another $7.4 million to ease overcrowding and improve performance -- money that is not budgeted.

The agency has approved a $488 million spending plan that calls for the purchase of nearly 900 buses in the next five years. That will reduce the average age of buses in the fleet to 7.4 years, but 5 years is the average in top-performing systems.

Metro is replacing malfunctioning destination signs, a problem that forces drivers to tape hand-scrawled signs to their windows. Riders complain about hot buses in summer, cold buses in winter and leaky buses during rain.

"It makes me angry," said Tim Monaco of Glover Park, who counted three of five August nights when the bus he was riding in Northwest Washington did not have air conditioning. He began commuting with a towel so he could wipe sweat from his face.

Until two months ago, drivers were not regularly inspecting buses before their shifts as required by federal law, internal records show. And even since operators started reporting safety defects, maintenance workers have been repairing only a fraction of them. Of 498 safety defects reported by operators Oct. 12, 11 percent were repaired, said Fred Goodine, Metro's assistant general manager for safety.

Inefficient Management

In 2002, White declared "The Year of Metrobus" and pledged to attract middle-class riders to pump up revenue and make the service more cost-efficient. But Metrobus has had trouble attracting and keeping riders who have other options.

Heather Cooper, a 27-year-old law student who lives in Columbia Heights, quit riding the bus three months ago when she realized she could find parking near her classes on Capitol Hill. That ended what she said was an "intense" commute on Metro's most crowded line, the 70 route along Georgia Avenue.

Metro managers often learn about poor service only after riders get angry. "If we get a lot of complaints that indicate there's a problem on a line, we'll go out and ride the line and see if there are adjustments that can be made," said Jim Hughes, acting general manager for operations.

Constance Rucker gathered more than 100 signatures on a petition in the fall demanding timely service on the T18 line that takes her between her Prince George's County home and her downtown job. Rucker, 51, has been late to work so often because of tardy service, she could lose her job -- an account her employer confirmed.

"We all understand about traffic, but if you post a schedule, you're supposed to follow that schedule," Rucker said.

Metro has added little service to overcrowded routes, saying it lacks money. The X2 line, which runs from Minnesota Avenue SE in Anacostia to McPherson Square via Capitol Hill and Metro Center Station, averages 59 passengers a trip. Fares pay for most of the operating costs of that line; the public subsidy is about 38 cents a passenger. A regular Metrobus fare is $1.25.

Meanwhile, the agency rarely eliminates routes with low ridership because of an institutional resistance to cutting service. The Kings Park line between George Mason University and the Pentagon Metro station averages seven passengers a trip who pay an express fare of $3. That means fares pay 11 percent of the cost to run the line and, for every person boarding that line, taxpayers pitch in $10.27.

For the first time, White's proposed budget recommends that Metro cut a handful of poor-performing routes and use the $2.4 million in savings to add buses to the most overcrowded lines.

Technology Lapses

Metro knows how many people ride its buses each day, but the only way it can tell how many get on and off at each stop is to deploy "traffic checkers" to ride each route. The number of checkers -- for all the buses and trains -- has been cut from 24 to 21, Hughes said. With five vacancies, the number drops to 16.

But 239 buses are equipped with automated passenger counters, which can log what times a bus arrives at stops, how many riders get on and off, and how long the bus remains there -- all of which can help managers develop the most efficient service and schedules.

The devices have been in use across the country for 20 years and are becoming increasingly popular. But the counters on Metrobuses are not in service because Metro has not bought the required $2 million software.

In 2001, Metro received $3.5 million from the federal government to install another device on its buses: automatic vehicle locaters. Similar to global positioning devices, the locaters allow dispatchers to track buses so they can send help if one breaks down or suggest alternate routes around a traffic jam.

But the system hasn't been used because other necessary pieces -- new radios for buses and dispatchers and a computerized scheduling system -- have been delayed. Internal Metro reports estimate the radio system is three years behind schedule because of technical problems.

A third technology to improve service, used by systems from San Francisco to Rehoboth Beach, Del., tells riders when the next bus is due. Metro installed a real-time information system in the subway in 2001 at a cost of $11.5 million. But officials have said they couldn't afford a similar system for bus riders.

In September, Metro decided to spend $6 million to allow riders to find the location of Metrobuses using cell phones or the Internet or by consulting signs at five rail stations served by bus lines: Pentagon, Silver Spring, Friendship Heights, Anacostia and Gallery Place-Chinatown. But at the other 12,430 Metrobus stops, those without Internet access or a cell phone will not benefit when the program is launched next year.

Some solutions are decidedly low tech. In Metro's surveys, non-riders say they avoid the buses largely because of the lack of information on routes and schedules. Although subway maps are free and seemingly everywhere -- inside rail stations, in telephone books, even on T-shirts -- a Metrobus map is a rare thing.

Two years ago, ridership on an Arlington County route jumped 30 percent after the county took it over. The difference was a green box the county installed at 22 bus stops displaying the schedule and route. "Before, there was basically nothing at the stops except a rusty pole and a 25-year-old Metrobus sign," Arlington County transit coordinator James Hamre said.

The Sierra Club lobbied Metro for a year until the agency agreed in 2003 put a systemwide Metrobus map on its Web site and said it would distribute the map for free. Metro had been selling bus maps at a $50,000 annual profit.

But when Beryl Randall of Silver Spring called Metro for the systemwide map in May, he was launched on an odyssey. He was told to go to a subway station, then to the Montgomery County Commuter Express Transit Store, then to Metro headquarters. But he never found a map.

Finally, a Metro worker said she could send him a map she found in a desk drawer. "How do you run a transit system without letting people know where you're traveling to?" Randall asked. "It just seems elementary."

Suburbs Pulling Ahead

From the beginning, the buses were an afterthought. The transit agency, which was created to build a rail system, was forced by Congress at the time to assume the operations of four failing private bus companies. Metro's engineers, planners and managers were focused on constructing a subway for the future; buses were considered a holdover from the past.

Problems worsened in the 1980s, when several suburban counties found it cheaper to run their own bus systems than pay for Metrobus. In the 1990s, when the District plunged into severe fiscal trouble, city officials cut Metrobus service by 13 percent. With money dwindling, Metro managers began deferring investments in the bus system.

Today, area communities have pulled ahead of Metrobus in innovation and technology.

Montgomery County, Arlington County, Prince George's County and Fairfax City are either using real-time bus information on their systems or experimenting with it.

Using a $500,000 federal grant, Arlington is building a control center for bus service on Columbia Pike where managers will be able to track Metrobuses and tell Metro dispatchers how to keep them on schedule. The county also plans to create "super stops" where waiting passengers can monitor buses on closed-circuit televisions that will also provide news and reports on weather and traffic.

Arlington and Fairfax counties have launched premium bus service on Columbia Pike and Richmond Highway, paying for frequent service, new maps and innovative devices, including technology that holds a green traffic signal so an approaching bus can get through an intersection. Since the upgrade on the Columbia Pike route in 2003, ridership has increased from 9,000 to 11,500 passengers a day.

In the District, the city launched the D.C. Circulator in July, bus service designed to run so often that schedules aren't needed, using new buses designed for quick boarding and unloading.

And in October, the District signed a contract with Clear Channel Adshel under which the advertising firm will build about 800 state-of-the-art bus shelters and will pay the District more than $150 million over 20 years to place ads there. The shelters will be equipped with bus maps and real-time information signs and will be maintained by the ad agency.

In contrast, Metro stopped building bus shelters in 1987, except for a few at new rail stations.

"It's a management problem," said Debra Atkins, a 44-year-old bus rider who says the Metrobus she takes in Prince George's is chronically late. "I think they push paper and chat and do what they do. They don't go out. There are no checks and balances. . . . I'm sure they're paid six figures, a lot of them. But I don't see them doing their jobs."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company