Metrobus Success Rate: 73%

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008

For the first time in its history, Metro has figured out how late its buses are. They are off schedule more than 25 percent of the time, and some of the worst performing routes are late more than 50 percent of the time.

The transit agency was able to quantify on-time performance for the first time in 35 years because software systems installed years ago finally began to work properly in July, officials said yesterday. The average on-time performance for all 340 routes in July was 73 percent. On-time performance is defined as arriving no more than two minutes early or seven minutes behind schedule, according to a report to be presented to a Metro board committee Thursday.

The report puts hard statistics to a phenomenon familiar to regular Metrobus riders: unreliable service. Metrobus is the largest fleet in the region -- the fifth-largest in the country -- with more than 1,500 buses and more than 12,000 stops. On an average weekday, passengers take about 445,000 trips, compared with about 770,000 trips taken by rail.

The bus industry average for on-time performance in July ranges from 65 percent to 75 percent, according to figures provided to Metro from the American Public Transportation Association. By comparison, Montgomery County's Ride On service, with 77 routes, has a higher on-time performance, in the "low 80s," according to county spokeswoman Esther Bowring.

"We're on a par with other transit agencies, but we want to improve and we're taking several steps to do that," said Milo Victoria, who is in charge of Metrobus.

Among those steps, he said, is targeting the 10 worst performing routes to determine where slowdowns are taking place and whether schedules need to be adjusted.

Other measures include coordination with regional transportation departments to set aside more dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal technology to help get buses through traffic, he said. There is a dedicated bus lane for the heavily used 70 and 79 routes from Silver Spring to downtown D.C., but other vehicles are often double-parked in the lane, he said.

The performance data are the product of three software systems that track bus locations. They were integrated in July to allow better monitoring, including how far buses are deviating from schedule and whether buses are bunching, several arriving at the same time. Controllers in the bus operations center can then call drivers or send street supervisors to adjust service, he said.

"What happened in the past, we didn't have a good idea when bunching was going on," Victoria said. "Now that we have a bird's-eye view, the controller can see where buses are in relation to each other."

Some poorly performing routes include U5, which runs between Mayfair in Northeast Washington near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station and Marshall Heights in Southeast. It was on time only 44 percent of the time in July, he said. The Y5 route, which operates along Georgia Avenue in Montgomery County, was on time 52 percent of the time, he said.

By contrast, some lines such as 21D, which runs from Landmark to the Pentagon Metro station, and B21 to Bowie State University have on-time performances exceeding 95 percent, he said. The Virginia route is able to use HOV lanes.

Victoria said that although he did not know why some routes were so far behind schedule, Metrobus does operate in a region that has the second-worst traffic congestion in the country.

Metro has been overhauling bus operations for the past year. The agency plans to cut several layers of management so that street supervisors will have more authority to deal with bus operators and their schedules. The changes will begin in November.

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