Getting to Know the Public Commuter

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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

Asmall group of planners in Fairfax County has launched an ambitious effort to re-engineer a low-profile cog in the county's commuting apparatus: the bus system.

The appetite for commuting solo isn't going anywhere, they say, but whopping gas bills, frustration over ongoing traffic snarls and the ever-present need to move workers in a growing job base feed the continuing need for mass transit.

To help, surveyors have begun fanning out to Fairfax's 3,890 bus stops, quizzing riders with detailed questionnaires to collect data on who's taking the bus and why and to identify the biggest holes in the system.

The surveyors will record how many people get on and off at each of the stops in a typical day and compare those data with questions about the lives and needs of riders, including questions on income and ethnicity, the number of cars riders own and the number of blocks they walk to catch a bus. They are also asking why passengers are on the bus: Finances? Speed? Lack of a driver's license or a car? Parking costs?

The surveyors plan to use the information to deploy the county's fleet of more than 200 Fairfax Connector buses more efficiently and to better coordinate with Metro, which also runs buses in the county. Officials said they have never taken such a detailed look at the system and possibilities for its future.

"We are one of the hundred largest transit systems in the country, and . . . I don't think people realize that," said Rollo C. Axton, Fairfax's transit chief. "We've grown out of the diapers. This is the new suit of clothes. This is the coming of age of Fairfax Connector."

The county is taking comments on the Web, has set up a hotline, is doing a telephone survey of those who don't ride the bus and has set up half a dozen meetings in the coming weeks to solicit public opinion, including one Tuesday evening at the county Government Center.

"This is an opportunity for citizens of Fairfax County to really define what their transit system is going to look like in the next 10 years," Axton said.

Sometimes, though, sexier transportation issues capture the attention.

Bring up commuting in Fairfax, and the conversation often turns to the stream of taillights strung along the Capital Beltway or to some other dispiriting backup.

Debate over plans to add lanes and build soaring intersections focuses on efforts to harness private investment, as with the Beltway high-occupancy toll lanes, or on the transportation-funding compromise dumped by Virginia's Supreme Court this year.

At Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church late last month, the architects of the transit plan shared the stage with executives providing details of the impending HOT lane project.


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