The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How D.C.’s ‘pop-up’ bus lane became like any other lane of traffic

The bus lane near 5th Street and Rhode Island Avenue Northeast.
The bus lane near 5th Street and Rhode Island Avenue Northeast. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

For at least three days in recent weeks, motorists could traverse the 12-block “pop-up” bus lane along Rhode Island Avenue with impunity. Parked cars freely blocked the right of way. In an industrial corridor, hefty trucks could weave in and out of traffic.

The new bus lane that spurred excitement among advocates and some riders when it was announced as an anti-congestion strategy for a partial Metro Red Line closure has yielded underwhelming results — both for riders affected by the shutdown and proponents who hailed it as a beacon of hope for the District’s bus network.

But the problem has been masked by lighter-than-expected traffic, although Metro has still squeezed 50 buses an hour through the corridor, below projections that called for up to 60.

“The bus lane is functioning marginally to assist with travel along the corridor,” Jim Hamre, Metro’s director of bus planning, wrote in an email. “Because of frequent parked cars, the lane is not fully cleared, leading buses to stay in the more free-flowing lanes.”

D.C. police said they have cited drivers 19 times since the new rules went into effect on July 21, including seven moving violations and 12 parking violations, as well as eight warnings. The District Department of Public Works said it has written 72 parking tickets and towed five vehicles in that stretch of Rhode Island Avenue — compared with 37 citations and five tows over the same period a year ago.

A breakdown of the data shows inconsistent enforcement and law enforcement’s dwindling attention to the lane as time has gone on. Last Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, for example — a month after the restrictions took effect — police handed out no citations or warnings for violations of bus lane rules.

Abandon hope, all ye who use Metro: With two weeks of single-tracking and shutdowns, agency urges riders to ditch the system

“It seems clear this lane isn’t really functioning as a bus lane,” said Dan Malouff, an Arlington transportation planner and bus lane advocate. “Partly that’s lack of enforcement, and partly it’s the street design.”

The bus lane rules are in effect from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, restricting street parking and vehicle traffic from North Capitol to 12th streets NE. It was expected to be the longest and busiest bus lane in a city that lags behind other major transit hubs in its implementation of bus infrastructure.

“Stripe it, paint it, appropriately enforce it,” Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth, said after the lane was announced, emphasizing how seamlessly the District could adopt bus lanes as part of its transportation strategy.

For upcoming Metro shutdown, dedicated lane spurs rare optimism amid sagging bus ridership

But the execution has been complicated.

The lane lacks certain visual cues — such as the bright red paint along the District’s four-block Georgia Avenue bus lane — and extensive signage to convey the restrictions to drivers. The District Department of Transportation argued that its lane markings, painted white letters reading “BUS ONLY,” and signage were adequate for the six-week experiment. But amid light traffic during a recent evening rush, observation and video footage showed drivers near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station made liberal use of the lane and buses had no dis­cern­ible advantage over other traffic.

“We have noted lack of compliance with both parking and lane restrictions, despite enforcement by our partner agencies,” DDOT spokeswoman Lauren Stephens said. “If the lane had operated for a longer period of time, DDOT would have increased the amount of pavement markings and installed more permanent signage for both the bus lane and the parking restrictions.”

With ridership falling, Metro will spend $2.2 million to study bus business model

At the height of the evening rush this week, a G9 bus moved more slowly than adjacent traffic for several blocks as it encountered three parked cars and trudged behind a slow-moving mail truck. When the truck cleared the way, a shipping truck took its place, prompting the bus driver to begin honking.

“It’s true that if I was a driver, I wouldn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to be in the lane,” said Elliot Schreur, 30, a policy analyst who lives in Brookland and has been using Metro shuttles since the shutdown began. “The painted lanes are the key. I don’t think that’s enough to signal to the drivers,” he said of the limited signage.

Still, he said, the District’s future bus lane projects — such as planned lanes along 16th Street — would likely fare better because of a permanent infrastructure that would be installed.

Police data reflects the initial partial enforcement of the lane rules, followed by a lull, then a more recent resumption of enforcement.

In the first week, police issued nine parking violations and five moving violations because of bus lane rules, according to the data. The next week, police issued a single moving violation along with two warnings. Then, between Aug. 4 and Aug. 10, there were no citations at all — just four warnings. Enforcement picked back up the following week, when there was a moving violation, three parking violations and two warnings. That week, through Aug. 17, was the last time any drivers were ticketed, according to police data through Aug. 21.

Malouff highlighted what he saw as the key aspects of bus lane deployment — both of which were missing from the Rhode Island Avenue experiment.

“Any time you change who or what is allowed to use a street lane, you have to make the change really, really visibly clear, and you have to visibly enforce,” he said. “The key is to change drivers’ expectations. In this case, neither of those are really present.”

DDOT says it will examine data it collects on the bus lane experiment as it assesses whether dedicated transit lanes would be useful in other parts of the District. The data includes bus and vehicle travel speeds, information on which vehicles were using the lane and bus reliability details. The agency said that data wasn’t ready to be shared.

Metro, meanwhile, pointed to successes with its alternatives; Hamre said there was a “surge of interest” in shuttle buses it provided from Brookland and Rhode Island Avenue to Union Station, Gallery Place and Metro Center. Metro’s contractor-provided shuttles averaged about 10,000 passenger trips per day. The G8 and G9 routes running along Rhode Island, meanwhile, were carrying hundreds more riders per day — with the G8 averaging 3,171 daily trips in August and the G9 providing just over 1,000 trips — a 64 percent increase from June.

But Red Line “feeder” routes saw steep declines. Ridership on the B8 and B9 routes serving the Rhode Island Avenue station, for example, was down 36 percent — about 288 average daily trips.

The shutdown is expected to last through Sept. 3, when the normal traffic pattern will resume.