District officials say they have a plan to speed up buses stuck in downtown’s traffic gridlock.
Beginning next month, up to 70 buses an hour will breeze through new dedicated bus lanes along H and I streets, according to the District Department of Transportation, an experiment officials hope will improve bus service beyond the corridor and help stabilize declining ridership.
The lanes, part of a pilot program, will be in effect from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. June 3 through Sept. 30, and will carry more than a dozen bus routes serving the downtown core. Bicycles, charter and school buses, as well as marked taxis will be allowed to use the lanes, officials said. Other vehicles will be allowed in the lanes to make a right turn.
“We see this as the beginning of really speeding up the implementation of bus lanes and delivering high-quality transit,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We will bring back the riders that we have been losing and we will attract new riders because it is going to become a fast, efficient and inexpensive way to get where you need to go.”
The project comes as the District tries to encourage more commuters to ride the bus. It is offering free rides on the D.C. Circulator, the city’s six-route bus system, and recently announced plans to build a transitway on K Street NW. The city also is moving forward with a dedicated bus lane on 16th Street NW, one of the busiest bus corridors in the region.
“A large share of all bus riders every day are moving through these corridors and they are often stuck in traffic,” Cort said. “Bus lanes are a crucial tool to changing that.”
Transit advocates are excited about the new lanes and about the possibility of reviving an extensive network of bus lanes that disappeared after the Metro system was built. The nation’s capital stands out as a major Northeast city that does not have a network of dedicated bus lanes in its downtown. Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York all have such networks.
To make the bus an attractive alternative for commuters, advocates and transportation experts say, service must be fast and reliable. Bus lanes could help solve chronic problems such as crowding, bunching and delays.
The H Street lane will stretch from Pennsylvania Avenue NW to 14th Street NW; the I Street bus lane will start at 13th Street NW and end at Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
While the lanes will launch as a summer pilot program, District officials say they anticipate they could become permanent after an evaluation. Drivers in the area will notice new signage and red paint markers, including “Bus Lane” messages on the road.
Thousands of bus riders are often stuck behind traffic traveling at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour. The routes traveling through H and I streets, carrying commuters from multiple wards of the District, regularly hit choke points entering downtown. Buses traveling on some of downtown’s most popular routes sometimes crawl at 3 mph during the morning commute.
"What we are talking about here is improving the performance of all transit by making that one corridor much more efficient,” DDOT Director Jeff Marootian said.
Marootian said the H and I streets lanes will ensure riders have a faster, more reliable commute.
The new additions make up about 1.4 miles of bus lanes downtown. Three years ago, the city opened a bus lane on a four-block stretch, a short third-of-a-mile of Georgia Avenue NW near Howard University.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s $122 million redesign of K Street into a more transit-friendly boulevard would add about two miles of bus lanes by 2025. The city is also moving forward with a decade-old plan to implement dedicated bus lanes along 16th Street NW, which brings thousands of commuters from Silver Spring into downtown Washington.
Transportation officials say they anticipate the lanes will yield better results than did a “pop-up” bus lane on Rhode Island Avenue last year, which was added to ease commutes during a six-week shutdown of Metro’s Brookland and Rhode Island Avenue stations on the Red Line. Lack of enforcement of the 12-block bus lane did little to discourage cars from using it, and Metrobuses also encountered cars and other vehicles parked in the lane.
Officials said red paint will clearly mark the bus lane, and they will use signage to ensure commuters know the rules. D.C. police and the Department of Public Works, which enforces parking regulations, will be conducting enforcement to keep drivers out of the bus lane, officials said. The city is also exploring the possibility of adding camera enforcement of bus lanes.