Bus ridership in the Washington region is down — and there is no sign of recovery as riders’ confidence in the public transportation system continues to wane and other options, including ride sharing, bike sharing and scooters, become more widely available.
Transportation officials, government and business leaders agree it is time to rethink bus service, its role and its future in the region. They even agree on many of the solutions.
“The question is, will we see change?” said Kishan Putta, a community advocate who has been pushing for better bus service in the District.
“I am optimistic that we will, but I know from experience that it takes a lot of work,” Putta said. “It won’t happen without sustained advocacy, and not just from interest groups or transit organizations. Really, political will only comes when the actual voters ask for something,” he said. “Not that politicians don’t care or don’t know, but they need to make it a priority. They haven’t made it a priority enough.”
For decades, the region’s bus network, a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of residents, took a back seat to Metro and its growth, funding and safety problems. Now, in the face of declining ridership, steep competition from other modes of transportation and shifting travel patterns, the spotlight is back on the bus.
In the next year, the region will come together to sketch out a plan for improving bus service — making riding more attractive to those who don’t use it and more efficient for loyal riders who depend on it to get around, many of them lower-income and minority.
Metro is leading the effort with its Bus Transformation Project, a process bringing together service providers, experts and advocates in developing a vision for the region’s bus network. Some officials say they have high hopes the process will lead to a transformation of the system.
Others are more skeptical of the region’s ability to embrace such transformative change. Several comprehensive studies in the last two decades have recommended changes for improving service, such as dedicated bus lanes, only to be shelved.
“We first need to figure out what is the vision for the bus,” said Robert Puentes, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation. “Once we figure that out, then we can start to think about improvements we can make to existing service.”
A business group last month called for route overhauls and a regionwide system of dedicated bus lanes. Transportation planners this summer urged greater collaboration among bus providers, recommending changes such as joint procurement practices and sharing maintenance facilities to save money and improve efficiency. Regional transportation boards are discussing strategies for making the bus a more attractive option for single-car commuters.
At a minimum, some advocates say, the region must have better integration of the various bus systems in terms of fare and route structures to make transfers between systems seamless. Ideally, there would be a robust network of bus lanes, frequent service 24/7, all-door entry and an electronic or off-board payment system.
“In order to attract riders, bus service has to be convenient, reliable and safe. And in many places, it’s not convenient or reliable,” said David Snyder, a longtime advocate for better bus service in the region and a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. “Routes that were laid out 20 years ago may not best serve the region today. We need to build in some flexibility and the ability to respond to what our public needs.”
Many ideas for improving service are not new. A comprehensive look at the region’s bus network came out in 2004, following recommendations from a major regional mobility panel. That was followed by a major evaluation of the system by Metro and a plan for implementation of the recommendations. Out of that, Metro created a priority corridor network, its current strategy to improve travel times, reliability and capacity in 24 major corridors across the region that serve half of all bus riders.
Several recommendations were implemented, leading to major changes in Metrobus and the smaller bus systems, from bus-route realignments to better accessibility at thousands of bus stops, newer fuel-efficient buses, and the addition of a real-time bus tracking system that alerts users when the next bus will arrive.
Still, other recommendations, such as dedicated bus lanes, which would have resulted in even more dramatic changes, never came to fruition.
Sam Zimmerman, an urban transportation consultant who retired from the U.S. Department of Transportation and consulted for Metro in the early 2000s, said changes have been slow to come and remain difficult to achieve because of the region’s decades-long posture that the bus is an inferior mode of transportation suitable only for people without a choice.
“There seems to have been the assumption that having a good, modern bus system would detract from their obvious ardor to promote rail construction,” Zimmerman said.
Cities from Baltimore to Richmond to Houston have done sweeping overhauls of their bus systems to speed service and realign downtown-focused routes into networks that better serve neighborhoods across their cities. Houston’s system underwent an ambitious overhaul in 2015, transforming from one focused on downtown to a grid that apportioned equal service to other parts of the city. The changes helped turn a ridership slide into significant gains.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has expressed support for such an approach, hinting last year at the idea of a complete redesign of the Metrobus system.
Some advocates and transportation officials say they expect Metro’s Bus Transformation Project to be a guide for such an overhaul. It will be difficult however, because bus service in the region is provided by as many as a dozen transit agencies, in addition to Metrobus. The multi-jurisdictional nature of the region also complicates any kind of regional approach.
The region needs commitments from the jurisdictions as much as from the service providers, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The jurisdictions control the roadways and are responsible for accessibility of bus stops, curbsides and traffic operation improvements that can contribute to better performance of buses. They decide whether to give up general traffic lanes for bus lanes and facilitate the implementation of a signal priority system that gives buses the right of way at traffic lights.
There are some encouraging signs of improvement, however, Schwartz said. Montgomery County is pushing forward with a Bus Rapid Transit system on Route 29 and studying one for Route 355. Metro is testing cash-free payment on some buses to speed service on some routes, and the District is moving forward a plan for a bus lane along 16th Street NW, one of the busiest bus corridors in the region.
Still, more is needed, advocates say. For starters, the District stands out as a major Northeast city that does not have a dedicated bus lane network downtown. Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York all have networks of bus lanes.
“The region needs to be bolder,” Schwartz said.
Puentes said the goal should be to talk about bus service as a region rather than as individual systems.
“We have the ideas, but we have to figure out how they fit in the very complex environment that we live in this region,” he said. “What is the role of the bus now, how does it fit in the broader transportation network, and what is it going to look like in the future.”
Once there are some answers, he said, some ideas may start to take shape.