At 16th Street NW, a divisive bus-lane proposal

Along the busy 16th Street corridor, the bus stops are crowded with frustrated riders. Traffic congestion causes frequent delays. When buses do arrive, they often are too full to pick up more passengers.Now riders, smart-growth advocates and Metro officials say the chronic commuting problems in one of the District’s top bus corridors could have a simple solution: a dedicated bus lane.

The concept, popular among transit users, is worrisome to many drivers who use the route and some residents of the corridor, who fear a bus lane, even restricted to rush hours, would reduce already scarce parking.The proposal also puts the District in a tough position as the home of some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion aims to become more transit-centric, pitting the needs of suburban residents who commute to the city by private vehicle against those of the growing number of D.C. resident who rely on public transportation.

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“Public transportation needs to supersede the convenience of suburban commuters,” said Sarah Spurgeon, an attorney who rides the S Line buses from her home near U Street. “There is just so much traffic coming from the suburbs down 16th . . . we need to focus on good transportation within the city center.”

Residents have sent letters and spoken at public meetings in support of the proposal. They say the city should have bus lanes, just as it has bike lanes, and cite a District Department of Transportation study recommending a bus lane in the corridor. Smart-growth advocates are gathering signatures in support of the effort. And Metro says a bus lane is necessary if it is to provide dependable service.

“Unless you address the congestion problem that the buses are facing, nothing is going to change,” said Kishan Putta, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Dupont Circle and a bus user who lives near 16th and R streets.

Bus lanes that take away a lane for regular traffic are generally not popular, but transportation officials are increasingly viewing them as critical to comprehensive transit networks. Arlington County and the city of Alexandria are set to open the region’s first bus-only lanes this year. The five-mile stretch connecting the Braddock Road and Crystal City Metro stations will offer traffic-free bus travel, frequent service and off-board payment. Montgomery County is studying an ambitious plan to build a system of express bus lanes. And in the District, Metro and DDOT also are exploring bus-only lanes along H and I streets NW.

Increasing ridership in the 16th Street corridor warrants consideration of a dedicated lane, said Jim Hamre, director of bus planning for Metro.

Metro has added buses to the corridor and in 2009 launched a limited-stop bus route. But as service has increased, so has demand.

Metrobus carries about 50 percent of the people traveling 16th Street from Silver Spring to downtown D.C. each morning, yet buses comprise only 3 percent of the vehicles traveling the roadway, Metro said. They get stuck in traffic, sometimes traveling at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour, according to the agency.

No room for more

By the time the bus arrived at the 16th and U streets stop one morning last week, bodies were squeezed up against the exit doors. A glimpse up 16th Street showed a cluster of buses slowly making its way through heavy traffic.

“You wait a long time and see many, many buses pass by,” Catherine Depret said as she and her 22-month-old son waited at 16th and Corcoran for a bus to get him to day care. On a good morning, they might wait 15 minutes. On a bad day, she is forced to take a cab.

When Depret arrived at the stop at 8:30 a.m., an S4 bus had just left. Three other people were waiting at the stop. At 8:36, an approaching S2 stops a few yards away from the bus shelter, and a woman and a child get off. The bus takes off, leaving behind a dozen people.

By 8:40, four crowded buses have passed by without stopping. One woman starts walking west toward Dupont Circle. A man begins to head south toward the White House.

“When it’s cold or raining, it’s really not fun, especially if you see four, five or even six buses go by,” Depret said.

A fifth bus arrives at 8:46, with limited standing room, and those remaining at the stop crowd on.

Metrobus ridership in the corridor has increased 25 percent in the past four years, Metro said, and the agency expects that trend to continue as people move back to the city, particularly to areas such as Columbia Heights and Dupont Circle. The S Line carries more than 20,000 passengers daily — an average of 4,237 during the morning rush hour alone.

Since the launch of the limited-stop S9, Metro has extended the S9 service from 7 to 9:30 p.m. In 2012, larger buses were added to the night runs to meet the demands of workers who often were passed up by full buses after 10 p.m. Last year, Metro added nine morning S2 trips, starting at Harvard Street, to ease crowding in the southern portion of the corridor. Longer buses have been shifted from the Georgia Avenue Line to increase capacity. And this month, Metro started running emergency buses on the route when people are left behind by crowded buses.

“Bus lanes will help,” Hamre said.

Considering the trade-offs

But some riders say traffic congestion isn’t the problem. They say there simply aren’t enough buses.

“There aren’t enough buses to pick up everyone,” said Ronnie J. Kweller, who lives just south of U Street. “Watching a full bus pass by in a dedicated lane does not help anyone get where they need to go.”

Kweller said she also worries about the possibility of a bus lane taking away parking in an area where it is already tight. “It will be a real hardship to people who have cars and need to park them safely, lawfully and relatively close to home,” she said.

The impact on parking and car lanes will be studied if the city decides to officially consider the idea, said Sam Zimbabwe, associate director for policy and planning at DDOT. The department’s master plan, MoveDC, scheduled for release this spring, is expected to include the transit lane alternative for 16th Street.

“You couldn’t just add a bus lane without any changes. You will need to be taking a car lane or parking. There are some trade-offs in there,” Zimbabwe said. But, he said, “we are probably years away from having a dedicated bus lane on 16th Street.”

The southern portion of the corridor, in particular, presents challenges because of its two- lane configuration. A stretch in the central part of the corridor already has an alternative lane, so during the morning rush three lanes are southbound. If a bus lane were to be designated, the area would still have two lanes for general traffic.

A 2013 DDOT study of the corridor recommends a peak-hour transit lane extending 2.7 miles between Arkansas Avenue and H Street NW. The bus lane has potential to increase transit travel speeds by 30 percent and accommodate up to a 10 percent increase in ridership, the report says. But it also would affect parking, currently permitted on portions of 16th Street NW during peak periods, and could create more vehicular delays at some of the busiest intersections, according to the report.

Drivers dealing with an already bad commute would suffer more with a bus-only lane, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said.

“Sixteenth Street is a mess, but for them to suggest that it is okay to take a lane and dedicate it to buses . . . is not an acceptable solution,” he said. “I don’t think the cars hold up the buses particularly. Everybody moves along about the same speed. We are all stuck in it together.”

A better solution, Anderson said, would be fast-tracking Metro’s plan for a traffic signal priority program at 16th Street that would allow buses the green light, which could speed bus travel.

Although transit advocates agree the signal initiative is part of the solution, they say freeing the buses from the general traffic will get them moving faster and allow them to make more trips. Metro already has 42 bus trips in the corridor in the 8 a.m. hour. That’s one bus every 85 seconds, more than the minimum required for a successful bus lane, officials say.

“We are seeing folks using all the available space on those buses,” Hamre said. “At the current rate of growth, we need something else.”