The roadway changes should help create safer and more efficient public spaces as the District moves to a post-pandemic era, city transportation officials said. Advocates say the changes also respond to long-overdue calls to prioritize transit, pedestrian and bike infrastructure.
Bowser (D) this month announced new bus lanes at three locations — two in Southeast Washington and one in downtown. The projects will add nearly three miles of transit lane to the city’s small network of bus lanes.
Another 0.6 of a mile of bus lane is also expected to open before the end of the summer as part of a broader road project along 14th Street NW, one of the city’s busiest bus corridors. And construction is set to begin later this year on a decade-old plan for dedicated bus lanes on nearly three miles of 16th Street NW. That project will take a year to complete, officials said.
“We know that a lot of people rely on the bus and we want the quality of that service to continue to improve. We’re taking these steps to ensure that happens,” said Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation. “We also want to continue to incentivize even more people to rely on bus transit across the District.”
At the mayor’s direction, the city is also in the process of identifying other bus corridors where general travel or parking lanes can be converted into bus lanes this year, Marootian said. He said lighter traffic during the pandemic has allowed the city to advance roadwork and revive projects that had been planned and start new ones that can be achieved without significant engineering work.
Construction on the three bus lanes announced this month is set to begin within the next few weeks. Crews will wrap red paint on the lanes to clearly mark them as bus lanes and will install new signs to ensure commuters know the rules.
In downtown, DDOT is converting a lane of parking on each direction on Seventh Street NW from Massachusetts Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue NW into a 24/7 bus lane. These bus lanes will also be open to cyclists and commercial trucks, officials said.
In Southeast Washington, the city is adding rush-hour bus lanes to a stretch just over a mile of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, from W Street to the St. Elizabeths Hospital’s East Campus, a corridor served by about a dozen routes. Officials said buses will have access to their own lane northbound during the morning rush hour and southbound during the evening rush.
Also in Southeast, in the Navy Yard area, buses will have their own lane on both directions during the morning and evening rush for nearly a mile of M Street SE, from 10th Street to Half Street SE.
Those two bus lane systems will operate Monday through Friday, from 7 to 9:30 a.m. and 4 to 6:30 p.m. They would be the only bus lanes available in the District’s Southeast quadrant, a part of the city that has high demand for bus transit and where riders complain about unreliable service.
“I’m really pleased to see that these projects are starting to go into areas east of the river,” said Andrew Kierig, chair of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council. “Areas east of the river have higher bus ridership, but they also have poor bus performance because traffic conditions are bad. Buses don’t have their own lanes to use so they’re running with car traffic. They get stuck.”
The bus lanes will help move buses faster, Kierig said, ultimately reducing delays for commuters.
The new lanes, however, are only a small fraction of the extensive network of bus lanes that experts and transit advocates say the city needs. A major bus study issued last year by the Bus Transformation Project, a group of D.C.-area transit officials, experts and advocates, said that to reverse problems with bus delays and bunching, the region as a whole must give priority to buses on the road network, to include building bus lanes.
Such investments in bus infrastructure, the report said, would make buses attractive to more commuters and improve the commutes of thousands of area residents, many of them low-income and hourly workers, who already depend on this mode of transportation to get around.
City officials say that by adding more bus lanes now, in the midst of the pandemic, it is preparing the ground for more transit use, creating a more attractive option for when the pre-coronavirus commute levels return.
The future bus lanes will also be open to bicyclists, adding infrastructure for a growing number of commuters on two wheels.
“As we continue reimagining public spaces, these lanes will help us encourage bus and bicycle travel, reduce traffic, and build a greener D.C.,” Bowser said when she announced the new transit lanes on July 9.
Along 14th Street NW, DDOT is advancing a project that includes a new bus lane and other major road improvements in a dense section of Columbia Heights. The work from Euclid Street to Newton Street NW is expected to be completed by the end of the summer and also includes redesigned bike lanes and pickup and drop-off areas. DDOT said it will study how well buses, bicyclists and the general traffic perform for a year with the improvements before a decision is made on whether to leave the bus lane permanently.
The changes should improve the performance of the DC Circulator’s Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square route and Metro’s popular 50 lines, which carry more than 15,500 people daily, officials said. On average, buses travel at speeds as low as 7.6 mph along 14th Street NW and even slower at just under 4 mph between Euclid and Newton streets.
The 14th Street bus lane and the three others announced this month mark DDOT’s most significant steps to grow the network of dedicated bus lanes in recent years. Last year, DDOT added 1.4 miles of transit lanes in downtown. Another bus lane is on a four-block stretch, or one-third of a mile, of Georgia Avenue NW near Howard University.
The city is pursuing a $122 million plan to redesign K Street NW to add about two miles of bus lanes.
The bus lanes installed on a stretch of H and I streets NW in downtown last year improved the speed of buses, according to city data, creating more reliable trips for the thousands of riders aboard as many as 70 buses an hour during the peak morning and evening hours.
The city is testing automated traffic enforcement for its bus lanes to address violators. Meanwhile, DDOT said police and other city agencies are tasked with ensuring that drivers respect the rules. The fine for driving or parking in the bus lane is expected to be $200.
Elsewhere in the city, crews are busy putting up as many as 140 signs weekly about the new 20 mph speed limit in local roads. Bowser reduced the limit from 25 mph effective June 1, following growing concerns about speeding in the city. Although the covid-19 stay-at-home orders decreased the amount of traffic on roads, speeds increased — sometimes people were caught speeding dangerously on highways and local roads.
As another measure to address concerns, and residents’ demands for more space to walk and bike, the District has widened sidewalks at several locations to create more space for pedestrians in front of grocery stores and other businesses and established about five miles of “slow streets” in neighborhoods. Local roads are closed to nonlocal traffic. Marootian said DDOT is in the process to select 15 additional miles of “slow streets” to be completed this summer.
Eileen McCarthy, a resident in Northwest Washington and chair of DC Pedestrian Advisory Council, said the changes on the roads are a good start to make them safer for pedestrians. Why they weren’t made sooner, she said, has been a source of frustration for many in the city.
“Of course, I wish it had happened sooner and I hope it continues when [and] if the pandemic ends,” she said.