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Low-cost bus transit potential better than rail's

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  • 11/25 Washington Post
    Published Tuesday, November 25, 2003, in the Washington Post Turning Back to the Humble Bus Potential for Improving Transit at a Low Cost Is Better Than Rail s
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 25, 2003
      Published Tuesday, November 25, 2003, in the Washington Post

      Turning Back to the Humble Bus
      Potential for Improving Transit at a Low Cost Is Better Than Rail's

      By Lyndsey Layton
      Washington Post Staff Writer

      This fall, Arlington County took over a Metrobus route, a line that
      plies small neighborhoods south of Arlington National Cemetery and
      brings commuters to the Pentagon City Metro station.

      The day the county took control, it offered the same amount of
      service on the same schedule. Ridership jumped 30 percent.

      What made the difference was a rectangular green box installed at 22
      bus stops along the route, said James R. Hamre, the county's transit
      program coordinator. The boxes displayed a schedule and laminated
      drawing of the bus route overlaid on the local street map.

      "Before, there was basically nothing at the stops except a rusty pole
      and a 25-year-old Metrobus sign," he said, adding that curious
      residents immediately started appearing at the stops. "We had people
      stopping to read the schedules while we were putting them up."

      At $76 each, the green boxes were a small investment. And one example
      of relatively modest, quick improvements that can be made to draw
      people from their cars and onto the region's existing bus network.

      "It's about putting people in empty seats," said Chris Zimmerman, a
      member of the County Board who represents Arlington on Metro's board
      of directors.

      Buses hold the greatest potential to improve mass transit with fewer
      dollars because bus systems are less expensive than rail projects.
      Modest investments go further.

      The region's major bus system, Metrobus, carries almost as many daily
      passengers as the subway system does. Average weekday Metrobus
      ridership was 562,400 trips in September, compared with 658,900 on
      the rails. Add the legions of riders carried by the seven largest
      local bus systems and the gap shrinks further.

      But until recently, buses have largely been viewed as a last resort
      of public transportation and an afterthought when it comes to
      improvements in operations, equipment and route design. Groups as
      diverse as the Sierra Club and the Downtown DC Business Improvement
      District have been pushing Metro to make the bus system a true
      partner to rail.

      At the same time, Metro completed its first comprehensive study of
      bus service in the region in a generation, drawing up a lengthy list
      of improvements designed to attract new riders, relieve pressure on
      the overburdened subway and maybe even reduce road congestion by
      persuading motorists to trade their cars for bus passes.

      The most obvious improvement is better information about the bus
      network, so that passengers can understand how to use it. A recent
      Metro survey of 1,000 people who don't ride buses found that 30
      percent want better information. "Even if someone decided they want
      to take a bus, they can't," Zimmerman said. "It's a big secret,
      unless you're in the know."

      Metrobus stops lack maps of the bus system. Any maps that exist at
      the stops show a sketch of the route without the corresponding street
      map, so the route appears out of context. At rail stations -- even
      those that are major bus transfer points -- there are no bus maps.
      And it's not easy to track down a Metrobus map -- they are sold, at a
      profit to Metro, at a handful of locations.

      "We have to start thinking about the bus system as part of the
      transit system, as connected to rail and not separate from it," said
      Dan Tangherlini, the District's transportation director.

      Changes are on the way. In January, Metro will begin distributing
      free bus maps, and the Downtown DC Business Improvement District will
      install poster-size bus system maps at 335 city-owned bus stops in
      the District. Metro is also planning to hang bus maps inside rail
      stations so anyone emerging from a train can figure out how to
      transfer to a bus for the rest of a trip.

      Adding Amenities

      Metro is also considering ways to erect bus shelters at scores of bus
      stops that now are nothing more than poles stuck in asphalt. And the
      transit system is working with state and local governments to improve
      pedestrian access, lighting and other amenities at 2,800 bus stops it
      has labeled unsafe, said Richard Stevens, director of business
      planning and development for Metro.

      Arlington has been experimenting with real-time information on one
      bus line, Metrobus Route 38 in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. At bus
      shelters along that line, an electronic sign announces to waiting
      passengers when the next bus will pull up.

      But it takes more than information to persuade people with other
      options to board a bus. Buses have to be seen as reliable, convenient
      and efficient, Tangherlini said. Traffic is probably the worst enemy
      buses face -- it throws them off schedule, which makes them
      unreliable and leaves waiting passengers fuming at bus stops.

      Giving buses their own travel lane is one of the best ways to improve
      performance, transit planners say.

      As part of the reconstruction of K Street NW, the city's major east-
      west downtown corridor, the District plans to eliminate the service
      roads that run along the edge of the street and instead carve out two
      12-foot-wide lanes for buses from the median of the broad boulevard.
      Two lanes in both directions would carry trucks and cars.

      Allowing buses to travel in special lanes on K Street should cut
      their travel time by 15 percent while improving the overall pace of
      traffic by about 5 percent, Stevens said. Construction on K Street
      could begin next year. Because the project is a road reconstruction,
      the District expects to pay 20 percent of the total cost, estimated
      at $5 million to $7 million, while the federal government pays the

      Saving Money

      Piggybacking transit improvements onto road projects is one way to
      make them affordable, Stevens said. "As road improvements are being
      made, adding small things that improve transit is pretty cost-
      effective," he said. "If you're under construction, put in signal
      prioritization for transit, better pedestrian access, pullouts for
      buses. You can really maximize expenditures of your dollars and get a
      strong bang for your bucks."

      Creating bus-only lanes in crowded corridors during peak travel times
      is one affordable way to help speed buses along, said Jack Requa,
      Metro's assistant general manager for buses. "If you create a regular
      lane to allow buses to move faster than regular traffic, someone
      sitting in his car who watches the bus go by would think, 'Hey, I
      could be on that bus.' "

      Eliminating parking in certain corridors in the peak travel direction
      during the morning and evening rush periods would do the trick, he
      said. Corridors where it would make a difference to bus operations
      include Wisconsin Avenue NW, Georgia Avenue NW, H Street NE, 16th
      Street NW and 14th Street NW, said Jim Hughes, Metro's director of

      A web of bus lanes, also known as diamond lanes, once covered the
      District. But they were converted to street parking in the mid-1970s
      when Metrorail opened. "The underlying thought process was: 'These
      great underground trains will whisk you from place to place. You
      won't need a bus system anymore,' " Tangherlini said.

      Enforcing the parking ban at bus stops would also help, Requa said.
      Each day, vehicles block bus zones, forcing the bus operator to load
      and unload passengers from the travel lane, which slows boarding and
      clogs the general flow of traffic, he said. And, with the bus in a
      traffic lane, sometimes other vehicles hit the rear of the bus. Road
      crews could paint curbs at stops red or green as a visual reminder to
      park elsewhere, Requa said.

      "The stops have been created. We're just asking for enforcement," he
      said. Some cities allow bus supervisors to ticket cars parked in bus
      zones. Metro supervisors don't have that authority, but perhaps they
      should get it, Requa said.

      Giving buses priority at traffic signals is another way to speed
      their movement. Buses can be equipped with transponders that
      communicate with traffic signals so that when a bus is approaching an
      intersection and the light is green, the signal stays green until the
      bus goes through. If the light is red and the bus is approaching, it
      quickly changes to a green light so the bus doesn't have to wait long
      at the intersection.

      Speeding Up

      Montgomery County ran a very limited test of the signal technology on
      a single Ride On route between 2000 and last year. The District and
      Arlington plan to launch experimental systems early next year. The
      District plans a $700,000 test of the technology on about seven miles
      of Georgia Avenue, one of the busiest bus corridors in the city.
      Arlington is spending $1 million for a pilot project along Columbia

      "It's good for the customer and good for the system, because we won't
      have to send so many buses out if they're not stopping and starting
      so often and running into delays," Hamre said. "That's one of the
      differences with Metrorail. To travel a mile, Metrorail starts once
      and stops once, but Metrobus steps on the brakes 15 times."

      Queue jumpers are another way to improve bus performance at a
      marginal cost. A queue jumper is a lane that is provided for the bus
      to bypass long lines of traffic at intersections. This lets the bus
      get through the signal in a single cycle, while the rest of the
      traffic has to idle through several cycles. Queue jumpers can be
      carved from street parking spots.

      One further obstacle to riding a bus remains: the need for exact
      change. To persuade motorists to get on a bus, it is essential to
      eliminate cash payment, transit planners say.

      "When you drive your car, you don't feed dollars into your
      dashboard," said Peter Benjamin, Metro's assistant general manager of
      finance. "People don't really know how much it costs to drive their
      cars. They may not even notice how much they pay for gas. The thing
      that they're concerned about is congestion and the cost of parking."

      Metro is installing new fareboxes on all 1,446 buses that will accept
      the SmarTrip card, the rechargeable plastic card used by subway
      riders since 1999. The SmarTrip card is "loaded" with a prepayment
      and waved over an electronic reader that deducts the fare in seconds.

      "We want to make it so people don't perceive they're paying,"
      Benjamin said. "Once we get to a point that you're using a SmarTrip
      card, your perception of taking transit changes completely, and the
      cost appears to be closer to zero."
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