But from dynamically priced toll lanes in Virginia, to new partnerships to deliver rail projects in Maryland to pricing strategies in the District, this region is inarguably innovative. Plus, new actors are bringing in shared cars and bikes, scooters and mopeds, ride-hailing services and more. Yet despite all this change and vitality in transportation, one of the most prevalent, ubiquitous and important modes remains stuck in neutral.
More than 620,000 local bus trips are taken every day in this area. That’s on par with the daily ridership on Metrorail. Buses are cost-effective and flexible and do not require huge capital expenditures to deploy. Almost all of the region’s cities and counties operate their own bus services, and 83 percent of residents live within a quarter-mile of a stop, including 96 percent of low-income households without a car.
But some buses may not come frequently enough. They have to contend with the same traffic as cars and fight with taxis and others to pick up and drop off passengers at curbs, degrading reliability. And bus fares are not collected or structured in ways that are convenient to riders.
It’s no wonder bus ridership fell by 13 percent from 2012 to 2017. Today, mobility is personalized for each user. People expect convenient, reliable and affordable transportation. For many of the region’s residents, the current bus system does not meet those needs.
That’s why last year the region embarked on a major effort to transform the bus. I am fortunate to serve on the project’s steering committee with some of the area’s best thinkers, along with advisory groups made up of technical and strategic experts from the cities, counties, states and other stakeholders. The strategy we collectively devised focuses on fixing the infrastructure that buses use, speeding the service that buses provide and providing overall better customer-oriented service.
This means coordinating across the region to make sure buses get people from where they are to where they want to go. It sounds obvious, but as the region grows and changes, the bus needs to change, too. But even a well-designed route that slowly creeps along is not an attractive option. So we recommend prioritizing buses by using traffic signals that stay green for buses so they can glide through intersections and dedicated lanes so they can avoid backups altogether.
One thing new transportation providers have figured out is that excellent customer service goes a long way to building a loyal ridership base. The region’s bus agencies need to do the same and update their approach to how they communicate with the public, how fares are collected and what the experience is like for users. This means new tech such as mobile ticketing, free transfers between bus and rail and real-time information on your phone, at the bus stop and at rail stations. And though convenience and attractiveness are important, safety and security are paramount, and the region needs a dedicated effort to improving the welfare of riders and drivers.
We recognize the plan is ambitious. Buses aren’t sexy. They are unheralded, disparaged, relegated to second or third tier in our regional thinking and effectively deprioritized in most places. But that can change.
I know it can because it’s already happening in the region, albeit slowly. A project to dedicate space for buses on H and I streets in downtown D.C. is working. Montgomery County is building a high-capacity rapid bus network, and Fairfax County is planning one. The District is trying out a flexible, shared-ride shuttle service. Bus transformation is also happening in many other cities around the country.
For now, the region needs to come together and advocate collectively for the promise of a mode of travel that today has few advocates. It can happen here. Just last year, the region came together to perform the herculean task of securing dedica ted money for regional transit. It’s time we give the same attention to the bus.