A $2.2 million study released Monday lays out more than two dozen recommendations for transforming the Washington region’s bus network into one that is centered around customers’ needs, is financially sustainable and embraces innovation and technology.
The draft recommendations would help reverse ridership declines driven by service that is too slow, complex and unreliable. The study was compiled by the Bus Transformation Project, a group of D.C.-area transit officials, experts and advocates.
Bus ridership is down thousands of daily trips, an estimated 13 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to the report.
“Transforming the bus system won’t be easy,” said Robert Puentes, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, and chair of the executive steering committee for the bus transformation project.
To achieve the project’s vision to make buses “the mode of choice on the region’s roads by 2030,″ Puentes said the region needs to create “a better system that works when, where, and how customers need it.”
Among key actions recommended in the report: making boarding easier through mobile or off-board payment systems; enhancing affordable options with free transfers between bus and rail and reduced fare passes for low-income riders; and improving the rider experience with efficient next-bus technology, modern fleets, clear system maps, and safe and accessible bus stops.
To reverse problems with bus delays and bunching, the region as a whole must give priority to buses on the road network, the report says; that could include building bus lanes and implementing a signal priority system that gives buses the right of way.
The report also proposes realigning existing routes and exploring nontraditional options for flexible, on-demand transit service in areas not reached by fixed routes.
Earlier findings released in January pointed to challenges in the bus network. Metrobus and the smaller bus systems in the region are too slow, too complex and increasingly threatened by competition such as from ride-hailing services, that analysis found. On average, it found, buses travel at 10 mph on city streets, down from 11 mph a decade ago.
“These recommendations directly address the core challenges that will continue to get worse unless changes are made,” says the report released Monday. “While buses are a space- and cost-efficient means to move large numbers of people, they are currently not being used to their potential. Without intervention, the bus runs the risk of becoming the mode of last resort, or worse, the mobility option reserved only for those who have no other choice.”
Among other recommendations are administrative overhauls to reduce expenditures, including revising the cost jurisdictions pay to Metro for operating their bus routes, and increasing collaboration among jurisdictions to achieve shared benefits in areas such as procurement and innovation.
The study, which launched last fall, brings together Metro, other service providers, experts and advocates in developing a vision for the region’s bus network. Transit officials and advocates say they have high hopes the process will lead to an unprecedented overhaul of the system. Other cities that have overhauled their systems in recent years, including Richmond and Houston, have seen ridership increases.
“We have no choice,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
While previous studies have made similar recommendations, Schwartz said this one has brought together all the transit agencies and various segments of the region, including government and businesses, to work toward plan for a better bus network. Among supporters are business leaders that were part of campaign for dedicated funding for Metro, he said.
“We do need to move forward and I think there is a shared commitment” in the region,” Schwartz said. “A route redesign and dedicated lanes and improved customer information can make all the difference in the world.”
Many of the recommendations are similar to those included in a report last fall by a group of Washington area business executives urging the region to act on deficiencies in bus service that are “holding back growth”.
Joe McAndrew, transportation policy director for the Greater Washington Partnership, which released that blueprint for regional mobility, said he hopes the new study generates even more support in the region for rethinking bus service.
“For the region to truly transform our buses, we must come together to make the bus the fastest option during peak periods on key corridors — anything less is going to maintain the status-quo, a fragmented system with declining ridership,” McAndrew said. “We urge the region’s elected leaders to seize the momentum and prioritize the bus in their plans and investment strategies, because the bus can provide more equitable connections for all residents and can be quickly enhanced at a far cheaper cost than many other alternatives.”
The bus transformation study is targeted for completion in 2020. Following the analysis of the factors contributing to the ridership declines and the needs of the regional bus system, the project is slated to be refined and the recommendations finalized this summer. The group will also develop a road map for implementation to begin next year.
It is hoped the plan will lead to major changes in the region’s bus network, which carries a daily ridership of 621,000 across more than 500 routes among nine transit agencies. Metrobus, the regional system, makes about 70 percent of those trips in District and the immediate suburbs.
“These are big, substantial recommendations and some may not make it into the final strategy,” Puentes said. “That’s okay! But the breadth of the recommendations that touch on all facets of the bus system and start with the customer in mind are needed to make buses the mode of choice on our region’s roads."”