The Washington region’s buses need a revamped network of routes and more ways to circumvent traffic to be faster, more frequent and more reliable, according to a report that echoes recommendations others have made for improving transit.
The report, released Thursday by the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project, bills itself as a strategy for keeping bus riders and attracting new ones by improving customer service.
In addition to creating more dedicated lanes to keep buses out of traffic, the group — which includes transit experts, government officials and business leaders — said that routes must be easier to understand and that agencies should better use technology to make it easier for riders to pay fares and plan trips. It also recommends making transfers between trains and buses free and cutting fares for low-income riders.
The year-long study, funded by Metro, explored ways to improve Metrobus and eight other bus service providers in the region.
Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, said the group’s surveys found bus riders want more focus on the basics: speed, frequency, reliability and affordability. Puentes, who chairs the group’s executive steering committee, said the study comes amid a national “bus renaissance” as metropolitan areas seek ways to use their congested roads more efficiently.
Puentes said the group has sought buy-in from regional transit agencies and governments and solicited ideas from the public.
“If it’s not working for riders,” Puentes said of the bus system, “then it’s not working for anyone.”
The report said area bus systems have suffered from a lack of regional cooperation and attention, even as they rival Metro by carrying more than 600,000 trips daily.
Puentes said buses have been “underappreciated” for their ability to move people efficiently, particularly compared with people driving alone in cars.
“We spend a lot of time talking about Metrorail, for good reason,” Puentes said. “But buses deserve the same amount of attention.”
Meanwhile, bus systems are seeing ridership suffer as travelers find more options for getting around, from hailing a ride on their cellphone to grabbing an electric scooter off a sidewalk.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and a member of the group’s steering committee, said shortcomings in bus service have become more pressing as traffic has worsened and the region continues to add jobs and people.
“People [in the group] were unified behind the urgent need for better bus service in the region,” Schwartz said.
While 8 out of 10 D.C.-area residents live within a quarter-mile of a bus stop, the study found, many find it frustrating to wait for a bus, especially late at night and during nonpeak hours, and inconvenient when buses don’t go directly to their destination.
In addition to having more dedicated bus lanes, the group said, buses should be given priority at intersections to get through traffic signals and around stopped traffic. Allowing riders to pay fares before boarding also would help buses spend less time at each stop. Bus stops and shelters should be cleaner and help people feel safer, the study said.
Some of the recommendations would require more regional cooperation, such as redesigning bus routes as part of a regionwide network, rather than a hodgepodge of lines controlled by different agencies. The group also suggested transit agencies establish regional performance standards and a “regional mobility innovation lab” that would allow them to share ideas about how to improve.
The group said it wants to make buses the “mode of choice” and the “backbone” of the region’s transportation system by 2030. The panel plans to release a more detailed 10-year “action plan” by the end of the year, Puentes said.
Though none of the recommendations in Thursday’s report came with price tags, Puentes said the group focused on improvements that could be carried out without “enormous upfront capital costs.” Many of them would pay for themselves, he said, as better service attracts more riders and, in turn, more revenue.
The group also proposed that a task force composed partly of state and local appointees ensure the recommendations get carried out.
“Nobody wants the report to sit on a shelf,” Puentes said.