For Buses, Wheels To the Shoulders?

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Washington area transportation officials are pushing a plan to run buses on the shoulders of the region's highways and other major roads, allowing the vehicles to drive around congestion and go to the head of the line at traffic signals.

With prospects for increased transportation funding fading, regional leaders are looking for alternative -- read: cheap -- solutions for easing congestion.

"It's about as low cost a thing as you can do," said Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the Metro board and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. Zimmerman is proposing a 100-mile system of shoulder lanes, the same length as the Metrorail system.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe, who was credited with innovations when he ran the Los Angeles bus system, is meeting with top transportation officials in Maryland and Virginia this week to push shoulder use and other bus improvements.

With Washington commuters mired in the second-worst traffic in the nation, area leaders are increasingly open to new, even radical, ideas for getting people across the region, including extensive tolling, better timing of traffic signals and using every inch of existing pavement, including highway shoulders.

"Any road that is tied up and has a shoulder on it is a candidate," said Zimmerman, who is also a member of the Arlington County Board.

Transportation officials would study which roadways could accommodate shoulder use. District officials are focusing on instituting dedicated bus lanes, such as the one on Ninth Street NW.

Zimmerman said allowing buses to bypass congestion would give commuters added incentive to use public transit. Each full bus takes 30 to 40 cars off the road, he said. "We have to reward people who use public transportation and let them know that even if there is traffic, you are going to make it to work or home on time."

Buses already use the shoulders on the connector between the Dulles Toll Road and Interstate 66, and on Route 29 near Burtonsville.

Glenn Saffran, deputy director of MARC and commuter bus service in Maryland, said bus passengers riding Route 29 "cheer when you pass 70 to 80 cars waiting for a stoplight. It was very successful when the traffic was very heavy."

The lanes still operate, but the route was shortened when many of the signalized intersections on Route 29 were replaced with full interchanges, he said.

The idea was pioneered in 1992 in Minneapolis, which has 230 miles of roadway that can accommodate buses on shoulders, according to a 2006 study by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies.

Minneapolis bus drivers are allowed to use shoulders only when traffic speeds in the regular lanes drop to less than 35 mph; they can then travel on the shoulders a maximum of 15 mph faster than traffic in the regular lanes. Drivers are specially trained to avoid stalled cars, debris and other safety issues, according to Minneapolis officials, who said the lanes have had a good safety record.

In a survey of Minneapolis riders, 38 percent said shoulder use has helped buses keep to schedules; the survey also found the lanes have been particularly beneficial during bad weather.

"Almost everyone who has seen the Twin City's operation seems to say, 'This is a no-brainer,' " said Peter C. Martin, a San Francisco-based engineer and consultant who wrote the research board report.

"The concept seems to be very popular with passengers," said Martin, who is working on a follow-up report on best practices. "Typical opposition comes from highway and traffic engineers who are trained and charged with maximizing traffic safety and maximizing vehicle throughput, not necessarily people throughput."

But Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said the proposal "would bring a pretty modest benefit for a lot of trouble. There's a lot less there than meets the eye."

Kirby said that many shoulders are not wide enough or strong enough to accommodate buses and that the buses would travel so slowly that they would not significantly cut travel time.

A committee of bus operators in the region studied the idea and found little enthusiasm for a bus shoulder network, he said.

"I disagree," Catoe said. "It could make major improvements."

Catoe said the idea is "a low-cost opportunity, with basically just signage and some striping." He said other strategies, such as dedicated bus lanes downtown and allowing buses to hold green lights, could make bus trips quicker and more attractive to riders. Similar innovations increased the efficiency of some bus lines in Los Angeles by 25 percent, he said.

In the past, Virginia officials have been lukewarm to allowing buses to run on shoulders, and Zimmerman blames them for the failure of a direct bus line from Bethesda to Tysons Corner a few years ago. Virginia's refusal to allow the buses to circumvent traffic by using the shoulders meant they got snarled in Capital Beltway traffic with other vehicles.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said he is open to the idea in places where it makes sense in terms of safety and efficiency. He said that the state will study the issue and that he could envision shoulder use on a planned shuttle service between the Springfield/Franconia Metro station and Fort Belvoir and spots along Route 50, Route 1 and the Prince William and Fairfax County parkways. But he said older infrastructure and pinch points along highways could limit the scope of such a system.

Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic said shoulders need to be maintained as safety refuges.

"Once you make them bus lanes, they are no longer shoulders," he said. "If you want more lanes, build them."

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