Buses rule in London

The red double-decker buses rule in London.

Despite its wide and effective underground subway system, buses remain London’s most widely used form of public transit. They make more than 2.2 billion passenger trips annually.

They go everywhere, from tourist attractions to residential neighborhoods, and in general have a reputation of providing good and reliable service in a city that, like Washington, is plagued by bad traffic.

I can’t say the service is better than ours. I was there only a few days. But there are some things I noticed London is doing that Metrobus isn’t.

London offers bus service 24/7, while Metro is not quite there yet.  A few Metrobus routes (The Wisconsin Avenue and the 16th Street buses, for example) run almost all-night, ending their last trip around 3 a.m., and starting up again in the 4 a.m. hour. Fares are about $4.80 cash (rounded out in American dollars) or $2.50 using their version of a Smartrip card.

Dedicated bus lanes all across London allow buses to move more quickly than they would otherwise. Even in transit-heavy areas of the city, like the famous Trafalgar Square, buses move in and out more quickly than I have seen here in Washington. (Buses in some parts of the District are sometimes traveling at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour, according to Metro).

For the most part, London drivers respect the bus lanes. There is an effective enforcement system that includes hefty penalties for violators.  I saw some very narrow two-lane roads with one lane carrying the regular traffic and the other bus-only.  Washington, meanwhile, does not appear to be making much progress on plans for dedicated bus lanes in corridors with high bus ridership like H and I streets and 16th Street.

Joseph Barr, a transit expert who was in charge of the New York City  Department of Transportation’s Bus Rapid Transit Program a few years ago, said although London doesn’t have what’s known as bus rapid transit, “really good bus is something they do.”

“They have tons of bus lanes and bus priority signals and streets that are dedicated to buses,” he said during a Coalition for Smarter Growth forum about Better D.C. Buses on Wednesday evening.   “In London, despite the breadth and width of the underground system more people ride the buses on a daily basis than they ride the subway.”

Some bus improvements, including the introduction of buses with three doors in the past decade, has led to significant ridership increases in London. According to statistics from Transport for London, about half of all bus trips in the United Kingdom are in London.  Similarly, Washington’s Metrobus system also has experienced an increased demand for service, and it has made its share of improvements, including the launch of limited-stop service in some major corridors.

But, London appears to be a few steps ahead.  Besides the convenience of dedicated lanes, riders in London, for example, already have signs showing bus arrival information at some bus stops. Metro is in the process of installing similar technology at some of the region’s bus stops.

London has launched double-decker buses that have three doors and two staircases to allow more people to get on and off at a time. In most central London stops, riders must pay off board, therefore reducing the time the buses spend at bus stops.  Metrobus, too, has been considering the off-board payment method, citing the successes in other cities and the potential it has to improve efficiency. It might not be a bad idea to look at the London experience.

“There’s lessons to be learned,” Barr said.


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Photo courtesy of Washington Post