Low-cost bus transit potential better than rail's
- 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
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.
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
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.
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."