Metro seeks to ease congestion on busy bus routes, saving time and millions

Metro has new data identifying the trouble zones for buses so it can focus attention and resources on easing bottlenecks.
Metro has new data identifying the trouble zones for buses so it can focus attention and resources on easing bottlenecks. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Some of the busiest Metrobus routes are also among the slowest. Thousands of riders who leave their cars at home wind up getting stuck in the same traffic as drivers, and the transit authority winds up throwing more and more buses onto those lines to normalize the schedule.

What to do

Metro planners have collected new data to identify the trouble zones for buses. They can use that information to focus attention and resources on easing bottlenecks.

Using the GPS-based system that locates Metrobuses along their routes, the transit authority collected data on bus speeds across the D.C. region during November.

The planners now have those results plotted on charts and maps, so they know where buses move relatively well and where they run into trouble.

The slowest trips are concentrated along the District's heavily used streets. Only in the outer areas of the District, such as East Capitol Street east of the Anacostia River, do buses move relatively easily. In the central city, many buses average less than 15 mph, and there are plenty of segments where the average speed doesn't rise above 5 mph.

The suburbs also have their share of trouble spots, such as downtown Silver Spring, East-West Highway and Columbia Pike in Arlington County.

Nat Bottigheimer, Metro's assistant general manager of planning and joint development, said the new data will enable Metro and planners from all jurisdictions to zoom in on specific, solvable problems.

Forming solutions

Speeding up a bus route isn't just about painting a solid white line down a road and declaring the creation of a bus-only lane.

Conditions for buses on a roadway such as Georgia Avenue can change from block to block, Bottigheimer said. And sometimes solutions have to be formulated the same way. They might involve extending the green light on a traffic signal for a few more seconds, allowing buses to jump the queue at another bottleneck or getting parked vehicles out of a rush-hour lane.

Such steps can make service faster and more reliable for riders and save money for the transit authority, Metro transportation planner Sean Kennedy said.

Metro has to buy buses just to deal with the effects of congestion. Buses get put onto slow routes just to maintain the current level of service as travel times deteriorate. The transit authority could save at least $40 million a year if changes on the streets could make bus service faster and more reliable, officials said.

Setting priorities

Metro can't do many of these things on its own. It can't enforce parking restrictions along rush-hour routes, redesign intersections, reset traffic signals or dedicate lanes to buses. So Metro planners are working with the region's transportation agencies and the U.S. Department of Transportation to create a bus priority corridor system, made up of 246 miles of roads.

To illustrate the impact of a relative handful of changes, Metro used the speed data to create top 10 lists of the bus corridors in the District, Maryland and Virginia that could benefit the most from road improvements.

The lists look at the average bus speed in those road segments and reflect the number of Metrobuses that pass through the segments each day.

For example, the top segment for the entire region is on I Street NW between 13th and 19th streets. Buses move at an average of 6 mph. That's faster than, say, the buses moving along North Barton Street between Clarendon Boulevard and Pershing Street, at an average of 2.3 mph. But 443 buses per day travel on the I Street segment and 64 on North Barton.

-- Robert Thomson

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