Comfort, Convenience . . . and a Bus, Too

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By Robert Thomson
Sunday, August 13, 2006

While looking out a bus window last week, I saw a poster for a new movie with a wonderful title: "Snakes on a Plane." Whether the show turns out to be terrible or terrific, you know two things for sure as you walk into the theater: There are going to be snakes, and there's going to be a plane.

Now, I happened to be aboard the District's innovative Circulator bus, which is based on this same sort of marketing. I don't mean the snakes part. My point is that whether you're selling movie tickets or bus tickets, clarity counts.

That's important to anyone concerned about traffic congestion, because buses are a significant part of the solution. Highways and heavy rail lines are expensive, and once they're laid out, you can't move them. By comparison, buses are cheap and flexible.

But buses can be intimidating. The same day I was riding the Circulator, I was also aboard a J2 Metrobus in Bethesda. After paying the $1.25 fare and taking seats, three people bolted at the first stop when they realized they had boarded the right line but were heading in the wrong direction.

Metro board member and transit fan Chris Zimmerman told me that three questions must be answered for a new bus rider: When will the bus be here? Where is it going? How much does it cost?

The Circulator is a model for how to answer those questions. The timetable is easy. There are enough buses in service that it's rare to wait more than a few minutes for one to arrive. It's hard to get lost. The three routes are easy-to-follow loops -- east-west, north-south and around the Mall. There's a color-coded map of the routes on a spinning cylinder at the bus stops along with some basic information. The fare system couldn't be easier: It's a buck, no matter how far you're going.

The bus design is distinctive, inside and out. The exterior is a striking blend of red, black and silver, with three big doors in the front, middle and rear for both loading and unloading of passengers. The frame is low to the street, another feature that makes it easy to step on and off.

The inside feels big and different. There are forward- and backward-facing seats at different heights, four jump seats in a central area that also can accommodate wheelchairs, plenty of standing room and large windows.

I rode the Circulator for the first time July 28, a day when all rides were free to mark the one-year anniversary of the system. That was one of the few things about the service I thought could have been clearer: There was nothing at the bus stop or on the bus exterior to indicate the free idea. Some customers seemed pleasantly surprised when they boarded and saw a red bag over the fare box.

It was a swell trip, and since then I've ridden the three lines with commuters, tourists and shoppers. It's never been crowded and almost always has been pleasant and comfortable. You can buy the $1 tickets at green kiosks located at some stops and then board at any door. (Just don't lose the ticket because someone may check.) Or you can board at the front door, with cash or a SmarTrip card.

Karyn LeBlanc, spokeswoman for the District Department of Transportation, which is part of the public-private partnership that sponsors the Circulator, said a recent study shows quite a variety among the 7,000 or so daily riders.

Half transfer to the Circulator from some other form of transportation, including 12 percent who ride the MARC or Virginia Railway Express commuter trains. One driver on the K Street route told me that a lot of people are boarding at Union Station in the mornings for the crosstown trip toward Georgetown.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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