Despite efforts to improve bus service in the District to make it a more attractive option for travel, it continues to be slow and unreliable, with some saying the situation has reached a crisis point.
A report card released Wednesday gives Metrobus a grade of D — barely passing.
“Transit is really in crisis,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which co-sponsored the report along with the MetroHero commute app. “We have been losing riders for quite a few years, and the speed and reliability of the bus just continues to decline.”
Metrobus’s grade was pulled down by some of its biggest — and well-known — problems: Buses are commonly stuck in traffic gridlock, they aren’t properly spaced, and they are chronically late.
The good news is the system, which for a long time was an afterthought in a region that prioritizes Metrorail, is getting some attention.
New and planned dedicated bus lanes should improve their mobility, and area leaders are coming together to craft a regional service plan with recommended reforms and improvements.
“The primary takeaway [from the report card] is that there’s more work to do,” said James Pizzurro, a software engineer and lead developer of MetroHero, which collects Metro data and analyzes it to provide commuters real-time assessments of rail and bus operations.
The study analyzed May Metrobus data from 34 routes in the District’s nine priority — and highest-ridership — corridors: Anacostia/Congress Heights, 14th Street NW, 16th Street NW, Georgia Avenue/Seventh Street, H Street/Benning Road, North Capitol Street, Rhode Island Avenue, U Street/Garfield, and Wisconsin Avenue/Pennsylvania Avenue.
The results weren’t pretty. On average, only 60 percent of buses were on schedule — and that means arrived within a seven-minute late window of their actual scheduled arrival time. Similarly, the scheduled headways — the space between buses serving a bus stop — were respected only 64 percent of the time. And, on average, buses traveled at 9.5 mph.
More than half of the 34 bus routes — 18 — got a failing grade. Five routes received a D; 10 got a C; and one route, the A7, in the Anacostia corridor, earned a B.
The Anacostia/Congress Heights buses generally fared better than other corridors. Buses there travel at an average of 12.2 mph, have more consistent speeds than other routes, and have a better rate of on-time arrival, according to the report.
By contrast, 14th Street NW stood out as having some of the slowest and least reliable buses. They traveled at an average speed of 7.8 mph, with some going as slow as 5.4 mph while navigating significant bottlenecks in areas such as Columbia Heights. The 50s, a busy north-south line connecting residential areas to major commercial centers and downtown, adhered to headways and schedules in the mid-60 percent range.
The Wisconsin Avenue/Pennsylvania Ave buses (the 30s) were also chronically late, with fewer than 55 percent arriving within a window considered to be on schedule. The 22 percent share arriving too late to be considered on schedule arrived an average of 16 minutes late. The story is similar in the District’s busiest corridor, Georgia Avenue NW/Seventh Street, where the 70s buses travel at an average of 9.1 mph, and roughly 50 percent adhere to their schedules.
Surprisingly, the analysis found that bus bunching — one of the biggest complaints from riders — isn’t as tremendous a problem as perceived. Bunching is what happens when two or more buses running on the same route are supposed to be evenly spaced, but instead end up at the same place at the same time. It happens because one or more of the buses is unable to keep its schedule.
In the study, bunching rates ranged from 2 percent to 7 percent, depending on the corridor.
“While this sort of bunching isn’t happening all that frequently, it is certainly very noticeable, and when it happens it is pretty detrimental to a rider experience,” said Pizzurro, who noted that it’s one of the two top complaints from app users. The second-biggest complaint is about ghost buses — buses that are supposed to arrive but never show up.
The report card provides a snapshot of the state of Metrobus service in the District. The authors say they hope the score helps transportation planners and politicians understand where service needs improvement.
Multiple recent studies have also given the bus system low marks, blaming the region’s ridership declines in part on systemic failures such as chronic delays and unreliability, and they suggest the network is increasingly threatened by competing services such as ride-hailing apps.
The Bus Transformation Project, a group of District-area transit officials, experts and advocates, recently laid out more than two dozen recommendations for changing the region’s bus network from one defined as “too slow, complex and unreliable” to one centered around customers’ needs, financially sustainable and innovative.
The report card unveiled Wednesday concurs with the recommendations by the transportation project. Among them are making boarding easier through mobile or offboard payment systems; enhancing affordable options with free transfers between bus and rail and reduced-fare passes for low-income riders; and improving the rider experience with efficient next-bus technology, modern fleets, clear system maps, and safe and accessible bus stops.
Jennifer Hill, co-author of the report card and lead researcher at MetroHero, said there’s good news in that the region is beginning to recognize that there are problems that need to be addressed. And, she said, some steps are already being taken.
The District this summer launched the H and I street NW bus lanes, aimed at speeding travel of about 70 buses an hour in the downtown corridors. Hill said that though the bus lanes are only a pilot, she hopes they will be made permanent. The District is also moving toward construction of a long-planned bus lane on 16th Street NW and a transitway in the congested K Street corridor, which carries a bulk of the routes servicing downtown.
“This is the right direction. These are the things D.C. should be doing,” she said.
Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, said the recent investments in the downtown bus lanes, along with the other bus priority plans, will make buses more attractive to riders and are part of the city’s strategy to decrease congestion and make the District’s transportation more sustainable.
These projects, Marootian said, will “improve bus reliability and travel speeds for the thousands of residents and commuters who travel by bus through some of our busiest corridors every day.”
The city and the D.C. region have been studying ways to improve the bus network, from adding bus lanes to building bus rapid transit and giving buses signal priority.
Ridership in the District’s high-priority corridors has dropped 12 percent over the past five years, according to the report. The numbers are similar regionwide, where thousands of bus riders have left for other alternatives, leading to a 13 percent ridership drop between 2012 and 2017, according to recent reports.
Advocates say strategies such as bus lanes are cost effective and have helped to improve service in areas like Washington. The analysis, which measured bus speed based on the time of the start of a route to completion of the route, looked at traffic congestion, but also a host of other bus holdups, such as frequent stops and long delays at bus stops.
While making stops is unavoidable, as it’s essential to how the system works, Hill said, other strategies can help boost bus speeds, such as consolidating bus stops, implementing more limited-stop routes, and allowing all-door entry and offboard payments to reduce the time at the stop.
“The ways you can speed that up are less about driving the bus faster and more about how do we make it so that buses need to spend less time idling at stops picking up passengers,” Hill said. “How do we get passengers on board the bus faster; is there a way to space up the bus stops more efficiently so people can be picked up at fewer locations? That’s what’s going to get the speed up.”