A Metrorail Closure Raises Region-Wide Question: Where Are The Bus Lanes?

As Metrorail commuters cope with another disruptive track work project on the Red Line — Takoma station is closed through Dec. 10 — some observers say the rail closures are a missed opportunity to demonstrate the value of dedicated bus lanes.

The #WMATA Twitter has boiled with fury at the maddening amount of time it takes for the shuttle buses to bridge the gap in rail service between Silver Spring and Fort Totten stations. On Tuesday, a WAMU reporter took a shuttle during the heart of morning rush hour: traversing 4 miles took 48 minutes, as the packed bus crawled in traffic along with single-occupant cars.

But this is one commuting problem that cannot be necessarily pinned on Metro; the roads are controlled by the municipal- and state-level departments of transportation.

Moreover, the Washington region as a whole almost entirely lacks dedicated bus lanes, even though 600,000 people in the area take buses every day. And it is far behind other major metropolitan areas when it comes to giving buses priority over motorists who drive by themselves.

There are many reasons for this lack of progress. In the District, transportation officials are deliberately taking things slowly to ensure that future projects are effective.

Beyond engineering challenges, funding for extensive infrastructure changes remains an obstacle, especially in Montgomery County. And in both the city and the suburbs, there remains a mindset that taking lanes away from cars for the sake of buses is a bad idea.

“People can’t wrap their heads around that. They are convinced that if you take away a lane it is going to lead to Armageddon on the roads,” said At-Large Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, a long-time proponent of the county’s BRT — Bus Rapid Transit — plans.

Additionally, buses seem to carry a stigma, but that is starting to disappear.

“Some people identify buses as the worst form of transit, but in reality it is one of the backbones of transportation in our region. Forty-five percent of regional transit trips are taken by buses,” said Pete Tomao of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which is lobbying Montgomery County to fulfill its BRT vision.

In 2013, the county approved plans for 82 miles of “gold standard” BRT, but securing funding has proven difficult, and some residents have fought the proposed redesign of the roads. As of now, only 14 miles, all along Route 29, are expected to be ready for express buses by 2020, and only about 40 percent of the lane-miles will be exclusively for buses.

Commuters seeing Red

During rush hour, Metro’s free shuttle buses have been routinely slowed by traffic congestion on the local road system between Silver Spring in Montgomery County and Fort Totten in Northeast Washington. Would a pop-up, experimental bus lane help?

“In theory it’s easy, and then when you get down to the individual corridors it sometimes gets a bit more difficult,” said Sam Zimbabwe, the chief project delivery officer at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

The main roads between the two Red Line stations do not have bus lanes now, and the transportation agencies on either side of the county-city line were not eager to implement a temporary one for two weeks to help the Metro shuttles move faster.

“I don’t think we want invest time and money and effort in things that will be unsuccessful,” said Zimbabwe, who noted that a pop-up bus lane could have caused even more traffic problems while doing little for buses.

Why not pop-up?

In late 2016, the city of Everett, 4 miles north of Boston, experimented with a pop-up bus lane using cones and signs to replace one mile of curbside parking. It went so well that the city decided to make the bus lane permanent, citing shorter travel times for the corridor’s 10,000 daily bus riders.

In D.C. there are several bus corridors that see at least that many daily riders, yet the District has only one dedicated bus lane – for one-third of a mile along Georgia Avenue Northwest between Barry Place and Florida Avenue. Metro’s 70 line carries about 20,000 people per day along Georgia Avenue.

“It has helped Metro be on time running buses,” Zimbabwe said. “It is a short stretch, but it is the right place. There are a lot of buses there all day. Not every bus corridor is going to be the same, so we just can’t go in with our red paint brush and paint the lanes red as the only solution.”

The District completed its first study for a two-mile bus lane on 16th Street Northwest in 2009, and it will be two to four more years before it is constructed for the benefit of Metro’s S-line buses, which carry close to 20,000 daily passengers.

In the meantime, DDOT has taken smaller steps to get buses moving. “We’ve installed transit signal priority at almost 200 intersections around the city,” Zimbabwe said. And earlier this year DDOT launched a five-year undertaking to re-assess congestion management with the goal of moving more people – not merely vehicles – efficiently.

About 40 percent of all bus service in D.C. travels through downtown, representing about 120,000 daily riders whose commutes depend on being able to move through heavily congested roads that currently have no bus lanes.

Across the river in Alexandria and Arlington, the Metroway bus system, the region’s closest resemblance to Bus Rapid Transit is seeing growing ridership.

Within Alexandria, the Metroway is 2.3 miles (0.7 miles in dedicated lanes) and inside Arlington County, it is 3.7 miles (2 miles in dedicated lanes). Because of the limited priority given to buses, Alexandria needs to deploy only five buses to its portion of the transitway during rush hour to meet rising ridership demand.

Trips have grown since service began in late 2014, from average weekday ridership of 1,500 to 2,400 as of last month. And that total is expected to continue increasing as development takes hold in North Potomac Yard and the Metroway system receives additional dedicated lane-miles – a marriage of land-use and transportation policy designed to maximize the bus system’s efficiency.

Transit advocates say Metroway is an example for the rest of the region to build upon if it wants to remain competitive with other growing metropolitan areas.

“In cities such as Pittsburgh, they can move 3,700 people per hour in a dedicated lane for buses, versus 1,200 people per hour in a lane just for single-occupant vehicles,” said the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s Tomao.

As for Metro, it is working with local governments to implement bus lanes along at least eight major corridors, including the inbound 14th Street Bridge and the new Frederick Douglass Bridge; and, within the District, Florida Avenue/U Street, 18th/19th Streets Northwest, H Street Northwest from 13th Street to North Capitol Street, and K Street from 13th to 23rd Street.

Photo courtesy of Martin Di Caro. Click here to view the original story.