As Metro’s bus ridership continues to wane, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is pushing a drastic idea: Blow up the system and start from scratch.
It’s an approach that has been taken around the country by other transit agencies facing similar declines in ridership — specifically Houston, which garnered headlines two years ago when it rolled out a completely reconstituted system over the course of one chaotic week.
And it's a strategy that is being pushed by the Washington region's leaders, eager to see Metro seize opportunities to save money and "right-size" service — essentially, to eliminate buses that consistently fail to run at capacity. A bus network overhaul was among the ideas recommended by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood in his recently released report on how to fix Metro's structural and financial problems.
“The idea is not simply to curtail low performing bus routes. Something much more comprehensive is needed,” LaHood wrote. “By re-examining the entire system of bus routes, schedules and operating practices, we can find opportunities for things like more efficient routing that save money and improve service.”
But before Metro officials can do that, they have to figure out why bus ridership continues to decline even as ridership on the beleaguered rail system has begun to stabilize.
Asked about the causes of the downward trend at a recent board meeting, Wiedefeld responded: “I’m not sure yet. We’re trying to figure that out. And it’s not only here — you’re seeing that around the nation. Bus in general has taken a hit.”
According to the transit agency's most recent quarterly performance report, average weekday bus ridership from July through September was down 8 percent from the same period last year; average weekend ridership was down 6 percent. And yet, during the same period, Metrobus had its best on-time performance for any year since the report began in 2010.
Weekday and weekend rail ridership was down just 1 percent — not a huge coup but a sign that the precipitous years-long decline may have begun to bottom out. It's also a reversal of the trend during the agency's year-long SafeTrack reconstruction program, when quarterly drops in rail ridership far outpaced bus losses.
Many people thought SafeTrack would be good for bus ridership in the long term. The train disruptions pushed many riders to try Metrobus for the first time, with some enjoying it so much they said they planned to make a permanent change to aboveground transportation. Many riders said the advent of mobile apps that provide real-time data on bus arrivals encouraged them even more.
But those positive circumstances, it turns out, have not been enough to stem the decline.
There are broad-stroke theories about the primary culprits. Private ride-share companies such as Uber, Lyft and Via have certainly lured away some would-be riders. And the growth in telecommuting means it’s become increasingly common for residents to commute fewer days per week.
Metro's latest fare hikes also hurt. Basic bus fares increased a quarter, to $2, and officials say the increase probably had more significant consequences than the rise in rail fares because, on average, bus riders make less money.
But transit experts say the issue is probably more nuanced.
Although bus and rail ridership usually trend hand in hand — people often use buses to reach their nearest Metro station — the post-SafeTrack reliability improvements on Metro could be having an opposite effect. Rail may in fact be winning back riders who abandoned the system for slower but more reliable buses.
The growing popularity of bike sharing also could mean that bikes are being used as a replacement for shorter or “last-leg” trips that otherwise would be made by bus. (Capital Bikeshare usage jumped 50 percent from the first three months of 2015 to the same period in 2017.)
With more people working jobs outside the traditional 9-to-5 day, riders’ needs have shifted toward off-peak hours — windows in the bus schedule when it’s common to encounter a 30- or 60-minute wait between buses.
And the change in demographics and housing density in the Washington region has probably led to a fundamental mismatch between the places where people want service and where they’re getting it.
Some experts worry about the long-term effects of bad press about buses (they cited not-so-flattering episodes such as a woman throwing a cup of urine on a driver) and see a need for a positive Metro advertising campaign focused on encouraging people to ride buses.
Metro riders are inundated with messages assuring them that the rail system is getting “back to good,” but Metrobus campaigns are aimed more at imploring riders not to punch their drivers — not highlighting the fact that buses are often fast and frequent and nearly always cheaper than Uber or Lyft.
Pete Tomao, Montgomery County advocacy manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, argued that Metro’s bus maps are too difficult to comprehend, discouraging those who might be open to taking the bus but are confused about what routes would serve them.
“Just with a new map, you can really make the buses a lot more user-friendly and more navigable,” Tomao said.
And there is the lack of bus amenities that advocates have requested for years: dedicated lanes that would allow express buses to beat the traffic and off-board fare payments so buses could spend more time moving and less time idling as embarking riders fumble with their SmarTrip cards.
“The region really hasn’t fulfilled the vision of networks of express bus routes that are robust and have dedicated lanes,” Tomao said.
That, he said, is why some advocates in the region are pushing back against the idea that the Metrobus system needs a bottom-up design overhaul.
“Before we move to say, ‘Oh, we have to redesign the whole thing,’ we need to look at corridors where we could have huge ridership and yet there’s no express bus or off-board fare collection,” Tomao said. “There’s low-hanging fruit that we haven’t done that could attract ridership.”
Yet in Houston, a top-to-bottom redesign has been a game-changer.
“There was a pretty stark decline,” said Kurt Luhrsen, the Houston Metro’s vice president of service planning. “We’d lost 20 percent of ridership in 12 years, at a time when Houston was booming and adding people and jobs and building new light-rail lines.”
Transit officials decided to overhaul the entire system, a plan that proved unpopular in many quarters. Much like in the District, where some bus routes were modeled off previous streetcar tracks and haven’t changed for years, there were some lines that had existed almost untouched for generations.
“There are some communities that are known by the route number that it goes through,” Luhrsen said. “There’s a big hesitation about change and an assumption that any change will be bad. That’s a big hurdle to overcome.”
The process started with extensive surveys in the communities that would be affected by potential changes. People were asked to identify their priorities. Would they prefer extended hours or shorter waits between trains? Were they seeking express routes or shorter walks between stops and popular destinations?
“The way these projects normally go, you hire a consultant, devise a plan, you bring it to the public, the public comments — and that comment can sometimes be very loud and nasty — and you make tweaks and the board adopts the plan and you move on,” Luhrsen said. “It’s not very satisfying, and it tends to rile people up.”
Consultants came up with sweeping changes. The bus network went from a hub-and-spoke design, aimed at accommodating commuters concentrated in Houston’s downtown, to a grid design that assumed that there was just as much demand for destinations outside the downtown.
And officials focused on providing more frequent service throughout the day rather than clustering their efforts around the morning and evening peak periods. They also beefed up weekend service.
“We in transit tend to have an overwhelming fascination with weekday peak-hour service, but that’s not what all of our users do,” Luhrsen said.
In the course of one week, the system rolled out the whole plan, a change that involved a lot of chaos but also opportunity. The bus system was able to catch new potential riders, people who before the redesign had not attempted to use the bus system.
“The rollout gave an opportunity for education, which you don’t always have a chance to do,” Luhrsen said.
The effects on ridership are heartening: In the first year after the redesign, Saturday ridership increased by 15 percent, and Sunday service was even more popular.
To be sure, the booming success of the initial rollout of the bus network quieted quickly. From July 2016 to July 2017, total monthly bus ridership for Houston Metro stayed nearly flat. Still, Luhrsen said, that’s a change from the dramatic year-to-year ridership drops before the overhaul.
Houston has gotten pushback from people who say the city has shifted resources from low-income and minority communities. Luhrsen says that’s an oversimplification. Some communities that have lost density over the years now see longer wait times between buses. But those resources have been directed to communities where the population has grown rapidly, communities that are still largely populated by low-income or minority families.
“You don’t put less service in poor or minority communities, because those are the people who use transit the most,” Luhrsen said.
Still, there’s one snag to the success story: Houston’s plan didn’t actually end up saving money. In fact, officials ended up spending 4 percent more than the previous year’s budget for bus operations — an additional $12 million — in executing the new plan.
Luhrsen said the redesign was never meant to cut costs. Instead, he said, it was aimed at accommodating more people without adding too much in cost.
“Most agencies, to increase ridership, they build light-rail or streetcars that cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and that adds 20,000 or so riders to the system,” he said. “We did that for many, many times less money.”