A group of chief executives from the greater Washington region says deficiencies in bus service are holding back growth in the region.
The region’s bus network possesses valuable assets, including more than 3,800 buses and a growing system of limited-stop service and bus rapid transit lines, but the region hasn’t fully leveraged the potential of the network to help solve its transportation challenges, the Greater Washington Partnership said in a report released Tuesday.
In addition, the declining performance of bus systems has turned many commuters away, resulting in troubling ridership declines in recent years, said the group, which defines the greater Washington region as stretching from Baltimore to Richmond.
To reverse these trends, the group of corporate leaders is proposing prioritizing dedicated bus lanes, overhauling routes, and implementing a more efficient payment system that reduces time at bus stops, among other tools, to improve service. These tools have proven effective in other major metropolises, the group said, and could help address gaps in service and keep up with the region’s growing congestion.
“Imagine if buses were fast, frequent and could get people where they need to go affordably and on time,” said Jason Miller, chief executive of the Greater Washington Partnership. “International regions like London and Seoul, and U.S. regions like Seattle and Houston, are leading the way with innovations in bus service. For the Capital Region to compete globally, we must transform our bus network so that it can effectively serve the needs of residents and employers.”
The partnership, which has a 22-member board of directors that includes executives from some of the biggest companies in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, is not the first to identify shortcomings in the region’s bus network. Other groups, commissions and government agencies,, including Metro, are studying potential improvements to bus service citing concerns about declining ridership and outdated service.
But the input from the business community is viewed as fundamental to addressing the problem. The partnership was part of a coalition of business leaders who successfully pushed for dedicated funding for Metro from D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
“Work like this will lay the foundation of getting something done,” said David Snyder, a longtime advocate for better bus service in the region and a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. Snyder, who also is a member of the Falls Church City Council. said the business group’s report and other initiatives across the region are encouraging after decades of little to no attention to bus service. “This is very positive in laying a foundation for an action agenda.
“The fact of the matter is that rail transportation has gotten most of the attention, but bus transportation is absolutely essential to large portions of our population and to areas of our region that aren’t served by rail,” said Snyder, who has been working on a bus project in Northern Virginia. With real estate costs up all across the region and especially high near Metro stations, bus transportation for underserved communities is even more critical, he said.
Bus advocates say the region must recognize that there are areas that are not and will probably never be served by rail and need a transit system that works. The Washington region’s buses carry 600,000 people every day, and transportation experts say it remains a critical mode for transport for many residents. Nearly half of Metrobus users are low-income and more than half don’t own a vehicle.
Metro is spending $2.2 million to study the business model of its Metrobus system, which has seen a 9 percent decline in ridership in the last year alone and a nearly 20 percent drop in the past five years. The declines come at a critical time for the transit system, which also is experiencing declines in rail trips, higher fares and more competition from rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft. Other local bus systems, including the Fairfax Connector and Ride On have also experienced ridership declines in recent years.
A consensus across the region is that it’s time to rethink the region’s approach to bus service.
“In order to attract riders, bus service has to be convenient, reliable and safe. And in many places it’s not convenient or reliable,” Snyder said. “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.”
The regional bus systems have made some improvements in recent years, including the restructuring of some routes, and the expansion of the express routes known as Metro Extras. Metro is also considering going cashless on some routes to reduce dwelling times at bus stops due to passengers holding up lines while loading their SmarTrip cards.
The position paper by the partnership lays out key actions to improve service across the region. Those include optimizing routes to improve service and better match riders' needs and demands; giving priority to buses on the road network by adding bus lanes and implementing a signal priority system that gives buses the right of way; and making boarding easier through an electronic or off-board payment system, efficient next-bus technology and simple schedules.
The capital region has been too slow to embrace best practices for bus service, the partnership said, noting that the region has just 12.5 miles of dedicated bus lanes and only about 300 of thousands of intersections in the region equipped with a system known as transit signal priority (TSP). TSP technology allows buses to move through intersections by extending a green light when a bus is approaching or shortening a red light by five to 10 seconds.
The inadequate bus network undermines the region’s ability to attract new business, the group said.
“Slow buses and declining ridership limit the region’s economic potential. Poor service does little to combat traffic congestion, which costs people both time and money. Unreliable public transportation makes it harder for workers to find jobs and for the region’s employers to recruit talent,” the report said. “It’s time for the Capital Region to rethink the bus. The region needs buses that are fast, reliable, and frequent."