D.C.-Area Bus System Is So Bad It Hurts Local Economy

Photo:  Greater Washington Partnership
Photo: Greater Washington Partnership

Washington-area transit agencies must stop treating bus riders as second-class citizens by fixing their poor on-time performance and adding to the region’s minuscule network of dedicated bus lanes — or else the region could slip into an economic decline, a new report argues.

Bus ridership in the region has declined about 8 percent since 2010, partly due to poor service, according to a new report [PDF] from the Greater Washington Partnership, a chamber of commerce of sorts for the Baltimore, Washington and Richmond region.

“Riding the bus should be easy and convenient and the experience should be comfortable, safe, and modern,” the report argues. “Capital Region consumers should be able to count on buses to take them where they need to go, not leave them waiting at the stop. Buses should be treated as a valued part of the transportation system and empowered to effectively serve the needs of consumers in the region.”

The group argues that none of the area’s three transit agencies — Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, the Greater Richmond Transit Company and Baltimore’s Maryland Transit Administration — takes responsibility for fixing problems.

As a result, the entire region has just 12.5 miles of dedicated bus lanes — with just three in greater D.C. By comparison, New York City has 82 and Los Angeles has 35. Washington’s buses average just 10 miles per hour, with on-time performance at just 79 percent.

Something needs to change or bus service in D.C. will continue to decline. Graph: Greater Washington Partnership
Bus service in Maryland (left), D.C. and Richmond, Virginia (right), has been suffering. Graph: Greater Washington Partnership

“We can no longer afford the status quo,” the report adds, addressing elected officials directly. “Elected officials of this region [must] rethink our bus systems to better serve our growing region’s needs. Every tool in the toolbox is within your control. You are the owners of the region’s roads. You provide funding that sets the outcomes for the region’s public transportation systems. You can make this happen.”

Without improvements, the region will not be able to reach its “economic potential,” the report added.

“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. This in turn undermines the region’s ability to attract new and expanded businesses.”

The group identified five priorities:

#1. A complete overhaul of the bus systems

An overhaul would help create more direct routes, eliminating branching and detours that make bus routes harder to understand and service slower. The planning process and top-to-bottom rethinking of the bus system could also help ensure bus stops aren’t spaced too close together, a design failure that slows down trips.

Baltimore and Richmond have already completed partial systematic upgrades, and Washington has started exploring this idea, the Washington Post reported. Bold moves are needed, the report says.

#2. Create bus lanes

Despite 900,000 daily bus trips by area riders, the greater D.C.-Baltimore region is pitifully devoid of any dedicated space for buses.

Washington D.C.’s metro area currently has only 3.2 miles of dedicated bus lanes — 1.6 miles each way, says GWP. Baltimore has 6 miles, and Richmond has 3.5 miles, as part of its Pulse Bus Rapid Transit. That means bus riders, who help reduce congestion by crowding into a single vehicle, get stuck behind the hoards of commuters who choose to drive alone in a car instead.

The cities can also help speed up bus journeys by adding transit signal priority, to give buses a jump on car traffic at intersections. Currently there are almost 200 traffic lights with bus signal priority in the District. But Baltimore is lacking, the report states.

Bus bulbs and bus islands that extend the bus stop into the travel lane, can also speed up service and are sorely lacking.

#3. Speed up boarding

To speed service, agencies should speed payment by creating off-board fare collection — and then allow riders to enter through any door on the bus. It can shave as much as 10 percent off trip times.

WMATA does not offer all-door boarding or off-board fare payment on any bus. Richmond’s Pulse bus rapid transit does.

#4. Make buses easier to use

The Greater Washington Partnership says more attention is needed to increasing accessibility and walkability around bus stops in D.C. and beyond. In addition, WMATA can reduce safety concerns by installing cameras in buses. Finally, WMATA should simplify its fare policy by offering free transfers in all cases, like New York City’s MTA, GWP suggests.

#5. Measure and report bus performance 

Lastly, it’s important for Washington, Baltimore and Richmond to track the performance of their bus systems. How often are buses on time? How fast are they moving? The transit agencies should publish performance reports to offer a transparent statement of accountability to the public. In addition, GWP says, they should make data available to third parties, for analysis, apps.

Currently, it does not — as Transit Center found.

  • Thanks for your time

    * MOVE BUS STATIONS FARTHER APART.

    * PROHIBIT BUS DRIVERS FROM PARKING AT A DIAGONAL BLOCKING LANES OF TRAFFIC NEXT TO THEM.

    *STOP SO MANY “NOT IN SERVICE” BUSES FROM RUNNING WITHOUT PASSENGERS DURING RUSH HOUR.

  • newtonmarunner

    Thanks, Angie, for this.

    I’d add that not only do transfers need to be free, but

    (1) Metrobús and Metrorail fares need to be integrated — cost the same regardless of whether a rider takes a bus or subway (starting from the same location)

    (2) Metrorail needs to have their fares be zone-based — not distance-based.

    The subway, like the bus, needs to reorganize its lines (which will involve tunneling in DC) to increase frequency (and reliability) and decrease the transfer penalty. Currently the subway is probably capable of running 80-85 trains per hour (I think WMATA currently runs 52.5 tph). Reorganizing the Lines without any interlining (except the Northern Virginia Lines outbound of East Falls Church & King St.) would get this figure up to 120-140 tph.

  • Michael

    Bus system would work great if there was about 75% fewer cars on the roads.

  • Courtney

    Why zone-based? Just curious.
    I live in Chicago and the fare for the CTA trains is the same no matter what line you take. Metra, our commuter rail, does this by zone and I never understood the logic or benefits of this.

  • Newtonmarunner

    Just the limiting factor is capacity, and fares ought to be based on demand.

    I don’t know of any industry — trains, airlines, buses, etc. — that charges by distance. Metrorail is unique in this respect.

    The bigger problem, though, is lack of fare integration and free transfers. It’s $1.80 to go from Anacostia to Columbia Heights by bus, but costs over $3.20 to go from Anacostia to Columbia Heights by the Green Line. This encourages low-income residents to pay with their time, and take the more time-consuming (and operationally less-efficient bus as the driver has to be paid to drive that distance) rather than rail. Integrated fares would have the price be $2.20-$2.40 to take the bus or rail from Anacostia to Columbia Heights.

    Ultimately, DC should also try to reduce the average bus ride distance with more subways. Have more people ride the bus 5-15 minutes to the nearest subway stop, which takes them to the central business district.

  • BART system in the Bay Area charges by distance. That makes sense because it’s more like a commuter rail with fewer stations in SF or Oakland than the DC metro which is more of a hybrid subway/commuter rail. With that in mind provide a hybrid fare system…one fare for the district/Arlington and then distance pricing outside of those boundaries…just an example.
    As for transfers, the LA system requires riders to pay a full fare between rail systems…at least that’s how it was a few years ago. If I wanted to switch from the Blue Line to the Red Line I’d have to pay the full fare of the Red Line.

  • Metro is a traditional hub/spoke system of multiple lines. Transferring among the various lines is unavoidable for most riders. There have been plans floating around to build a circle line within DC/Arlington that would connect all 5 lines and reduce the need to transfer at Metro Center, Gallery Place or L’Enfant (or Rosslyn for Arlington-based trips).

  • Matti Paul

    Transfers are currently free within a window of time in Los Angeles. Fares are also flat, not accounting for distances.

  • Daisy’s World

    WMATA was originally intended only to build and operate Metrorail, not to be a bus provider. But the financial collapse of DC Transit, the private company that operated the District’s buses, led to a 1971 amendment to its charter to allow it to operate buses. In 1973, three years before Metrorail opened, Metro took over DC Transit; the Washington, Virginia, and Maryland Coach Company; the Alexandria, Barcroft, and Washington Transit Company in Northern Virginia; and the Washington, Marlboro, and Annapolis Transit Company in Prince George’s County. The region found itself with a single agency providing bus and rail service, eliminating inter-agency barriers to network planning and legibility. However, by the 1980s, area cities and counties began operating their own jurisdictional bus services.www.daisylimo.com

  • david vartanoff

    BART may pretend to be a ‘commuter’ system, but the vast majority of ridership is in SF and the urban core of the East Bay where it is very similar to the L in Chicago, and the subway outside Manhattan. The distance based fares, which are skewed to discourage short trips, put riders at the same disadvantages as the Green Line v bus example cited above.
    Exacerbating all of this is the multitude of non-cooperating transit agencies in both metros–each employing duplicate office personnel but with no cross honoring of fare instruments.

  • david vartanoff

    Any bus on the public street should be in revenue service if the driver is on the clock.

  • Bern

    Publicly administered mass transit (buses, streetcars, subways) should be free at the point of entry, just as private vehicles freely access public roads at their point of entry (exiting driveways). All it takes is political muscle and dedicated funding sources.

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