Imagine being at almost any major corner or commercial center of the region and knowing a fast and reliable vehicle will soon arrive to whisk you in the direction you want to go for a low cost.
Anyone who lives or works near a Metro station enjoys that kind of freedom, at least when Metro is working well (sadly, a little less often these days). But for everyone not near Metro — in Georgetown, H Street, upper Georgia Avenue, Hillcrest, Annandale, historic McLean, Kensington or Hyattsville — this is a dream not yet realized.
But a certain technology can provide this: the bus. All it takes is the political will to modify our streets and traffic signals to make the bus frequent, attractive, reliable and speedy.
The formula is simple, though it varies a bit from place to place. Take existing corridors with popular buses and ensure the buses come frequently. Configure traffic signals to hold a green light or start one early for a bus. Where there’s traffic congestion, dedicate a lane for buses. Help people board quickly with payment kiosks, fewer stairs and other features.
Virginia has jumped ahead with the Metroway, a higher-quality service from Crystal City to Potomac Yard and Braddock Road.
The District Department of Transportation is studying ways to make the 16th Street S line, among the most-used in the region, faster and more reliable. Options under consideration include all-day or rush-hour bus lanes, changes to signals and technology that would allow riders to pay the fare while waiting for the bus.
In Montgomery County, there’s a plan to build a network of Bus Rapid Transit lines, mostly in dedicated lanes, on major arterial roads. A recent task force produced a report on ways to implement and fund the system.
The biggest obstacle? Political will.
Buses are sometimes denigrated as slow, unreliable and the province of only those who can’t afford an alternative or of the eco-haughty. This reputation is fairly earned in many cases, because cities and counties force the buses to sit in the same traffic as everyone else or pull out of traffic to stop and then wait to merge back in. Bus stops are often no more than flags on the side of the road and, in suburban counties, often at the side of a high-speed thoroughfare without crosswalks to get to the other side.
As our region grows, however, there is a simple mathematical truth: The number of people trying to move on our transportation systems is growing, but the amount of roadway is not. There isn’t anywhere to put those roadways even if it were possible and desirable to add more. Rather, we need to find ways to move more people in the same amount of space.
If the region builds a robust network of frequent, high-quality bus lines, transit can be a choice for many more of us. The current system of managing traffic does not work.
Buses have been often used as a foil for those who want to avoid investing in transit. But doing bus service well is not cost-free. Stations that make people comfortable while waiting, technology to optimize signals and payment kiosks cost money. So does providing enough service that people can show up and know the wait won’t be too long, as with Metro trains.
It’s disingenuous to favor buses as a cost-saving measure but then balk at any cost associated with making bus service better than the flag on the side of the road.
It’s also disingenuous, but common, for public officials to scorn transit investment, holding out a bus as a better and cheaper option and then not putting in the hard work of making that “better” part come true.
Making buses better and building light rail (such as the much-needed Purple Line) or streetcars (which offer higher-capacity vehicles in busy corridors), and improving Metro and fixing its bottlenecks are not mutually exclusive. But making buses great, with frequent service, signal priority, dedicated lanes and quicker boarding, is the fastest way to give many more residents of our region good transportation choices and get the most out of the road network we have today.
We need to move quickly to implement the recommendations from the District’s 16th Street study, fund and build Montgomery’s Bus Rapid Transit network, duplicate the successes of Metroway elsewhere in Virginia and start making similar plans in scores of major corridors throughout our region. There is no reason to wait.
The writer is founder of Greater Greater Washington.