For years, District transportation officials have studied ways to improve bus service along the busy 16th Street NW corridor. More and longer buses and a limited-stop route have drawn more riders but have done little to alleviate delays and crowding.
The D.C. Department of Transportation says to generate solutions, it is turning to even more analysis of the corridor’s chronic problems with a new year-long, $1 million study. It hopes this latest investment will help it determine whether a dedicated bus lane is appropriate for the corridor that carries about 21,000 bus riders daily and where half of rush-hour commuters are on buses.
“It is about how to improve transit service. Studying a transit lane is part of that,” said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director for policy and planning. The plan, he said, is to delve deeply into transit performance: where riders are boarding, where buses are getting stuck in traffic, what is slowing buses.
Two studies of the corridor have been done since 2009, including one by DDOT in 2013, which recommended a peak-hour bus lane, and another by Metro, which identified a transit lane as a potential improvement for the corridor.
This new study is part of an “action plan” for 16th Street that DDOT laid out in August, when the agency promised to enhance the bus commuting experience through a series of steps. The launch of this study appears to fulfill at least one of those steps.
DDOT has hired the consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to do the study; federal funds will pay for $800,000 of the cost and local funds will cover $200,000, officials said.
When it presented the plan last summer, DDOT said it had completed a timing-optimization strategy for 44 traffic signals along 16th Street, which it said led to some travel-time savings. Metro, for its part, added larger buses to the corridor to relieve crowding and accommodate the increasing ridership.
DDOT has yet to deliver on a proposal to extend rush hours along the corridor in each direction to discourage parking and “enable buses at the tail ends of the morning and evening rush hours to make up some time and improve operational efficiency.” The plan was to be implemented last fall, but DDOT says it has been put on hold because of the challenges an extended rush would present to parking enforcement.
In addition, DDOT says it continues to work with Metro to implement a program that would prioritize traffic signals for buses in order to speed travel. For years, the two agencies have expressed commitment to the project, but it continues to be pushed back. In August, DDOT said the program would come to 16th Street in mid-2015. Now agency officials say that its full installation on multiple streets, including 16th, will be completed by summer 2016.
The new 16th Street NW Transit Priority Planning Study will look in detail at a 2.7-mile stretch from Arkansas Avenue south to H Street NW, a section an earlier study noted as optimal for a dedicated bus lane. DDOT will hold a public meeting March 31 to hear from residents, transit users and other stakeholders.
Once this latest study is completed, some riders and public transit advocates say they expect the city to move from planning to action.
“This is the detailed study that really moves us toward action,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It is going to take a lot to deliver much better bus service, and getting buses out of being stuck in traffic is a really important part of the solution.”
But in addition to studying a bus lane in the corridor, Cort agrees with DDOT that other potential solutions should be considered, including a system that would allow riders to pay their fare before boarding to reduce the time buses spend at stops.
Zimbabwe said the new study should be able to assess whether an off-board payment system with other improvements — such as the traffic signal priority program — would be enough to alleviate the problems.
“If most of the delay in buses is the bus stopping to pick up passengers, then ways to speed that up are more important than providing a transit lane,” he said.
Metro has said that a transit lane would take care of the buses’ biggest enemy: traffic. Buses stuck in traffic often travel at speeds of less than 10 mph, according to the transit agency.
Many bus commuters agree that if buses could proceed free of the general traffic, they could travel more quickly.
“That definitely is the biggest factor to any kind of delay,” said Kelsey Hall, 24, a theater teacher who commutes using the S Line bus from Silver Spring to Columbia Heights. Combine heavy traffic with ongoing construction and recent weather conditions, and it becomes a nightmare.
“There are days when it literally feels like we are inching along for a few blocks, and you wonder if it would be faster to get out and walk,” she said.
A bus lane might be a good idea, but it also raises many questions, Hall said.
“I am just not sure logistically how that would work out, and I almost wonder if it would be more of a headache while it’s being built,” she said.
The study should answer those questions, Zimbabwe said. And, there are the concerns of the thousands of drivers who use the major artery to commute from Silver Spring into downtown Washington each day.
Although the 2013 study determined that a bus lane has the potential to increase transit travel speeds by 30 percent and accommodate more riders, the report did not address in detail the potential benefits and impacts.
The study, which cost $345,000, was largely a traffic analysis and was not conducted in an open community process. It indicated that a transit lane could improve service but also would affect street parking and cause vehicular delays at some of the busiest intersections along the corridor.
After its study of Metrobus’s 16th Street S-Line in 2009, Metro introduced the limited-stop S9, which led to about 5,000 new riders in the corridor. Metro has added longer buses and morning trips in the middle of the route to ease crowding in the southern portion of the corridor.
“We certainly hope that riders are having an improved experience as a result of the changes that were made last summer,” an agency spokesman said in a statement. He said the agency is eager to participate in the new DDOT study.
Although Metro is running buses every 85 seconds during rush hour and DDOT has said it has made improvements, some riders say they have yet to see them.
Sarah Spurgeon said problems along the route are so serious that she no longer waits for buses at S Street, where they tend to arrive crowded and often don’t stop to pick up passengers. She walks south to P or M streets, where more passengers off-load.
“It’s a solution that works for me,” she said. “But of course, if everyone did that . . . I’m not sure it would help.”