DC’s first bright red bus lanes now adorn four blocks of Georgia Avenue, near Howard University. DDOT crews added the red surface earlier this month.
Georgia Avenue’s new red carpet for buses.
The bus lanes run along both curbs, from Florida Avenue north to Barry Place. They speed Metrobus’ busy 70-series line through what was the slowest section of Georgia Avenue north of downtown.
The bright red color is a strong visual clue to car drivers to stay out of the lane. It’s a stark contrast to the Gallery Place bus lane a dozen blocks south, which is so poorly marked that many car drivers legitimately don’t know it’s there. For these four blocks, drivers will have no excuse.
Anecdotally, the red surface seems to be working pretty well. Most car drivers seem to stay out. To find out for sure, DDOT is in the process of collecting actual data, comparing the car violation rate now to the rate from before the red surface was added.
Cyclists and taxicabs are allowed the use the lanes in addition to buses. Signs along the street spell out the exact rules.
Since the lanes are along the curb, cars can enter them to turn right. Dashed white lane markings show where cars can enter.
To avoid wear-and-tear and to make the bus lanes safer for cyclists, the “red paint” is actually a gritty surface coating. If you walk along Georgia Avenue now, you can still see some of the leftover grit along the curb.
❤ the transit red carpet
By adding these lanes and marking them clearly, DC is taking an real step towards prioritizing street space for transit. At only four blocks long they’re are a humble start, but a start nonetheless.
Crystal City transitway station. Photo by Arlington.
Georgia Avenue’s bus lanes will run just four blocks, from Florida Avenue to Barry Place. They’ll be curbside lanes, with normal bus stops on the sidewalk.
Location of Georgia Avenue bus lanes. Image from DC and Google.
Four blocks is short, but this location is specifically one of the slowest stretches WMATA’s busy 70-series bus line passes through. Bus lanes here will speed the entire line.
Just as importantly, this will be a test project for DDOT to study, and to learn about bus lane implementation. In May, crews will add red paint to the roadway to make the bus lanes more visually obvious. By adding the red surface later, DDOT will gather data on whether the red really does dissuade car drivers from using the lanes illegally.
Red-painted curbside bus lane in New York. Photo by NACTO.
If Georgia Avenue’s four block bus lanes prove successful, they could provide a model for the citywide transit lane network envisioned in moveDC. They could also one day form the backbone of a future Georgia Avenue streetcar.
The new Crystal City transitway section will run from Crystal City Metro south to Alexandria, where it will join the existing busway. It’ll be a mix of curbside bus lanes and fully exclusive bi-directional busway.
Crystal City transitway. Image by Arlington.
The DC region once had 60 miles of bus-only lanes. With these projects finally happening, and others like 16th Street on the horizon, it’s exciting to see a reborn network begin to take shape.
There are more than 20 separate bus agencies in the Washington area. Why not run them all as part of WMATA? Some run outside WMATA’s geography, but the bigger reason is money: It costs less to run a local bus than a WMATA bus, translating to better service for less money on local lines.
Our region is a smorgasbord of overlaying transit networks, with little in common except, thankfully, the Smartrip card.
Three reasons, but mostly it’s all about money
Some of the non-WMATA bus systems can’t be part of Metro simply because buses go to places that aren’t part of the WMATA geography. Since Prince William County is outside WMATA’s service area, Prince William County needs its own system. Thus, OmniRide is born. Hypothetically WMATA could expand its boundaries, but at some point 20 or 40 or 60 miles out from DC, that stops making sense.
Another reason for the transit hodgepodge is control. Locals obviously have more direct control over local systems. That’s an incentive to manage buses close to home.
But the biggest reason is money. Specifically, operating costs.
To calculate how much it costs to operate a bus line, transit agencies use a formula called “cost per revenue hour.” That means, simply, how much it costs to keep a bus in service and carrying passengers for one hour. It includes the cost of the driver’s salary, fuel for the bus, and other back-end administrative costs.
Here are the costs per hour for some of the DC-region’s bus systems, according to VDOT:
WMATA Metrobus: $142/hour
Fairfax County Connector: $104/hour
Arlington County ART: $72/hour
Not only is WMATA the highest, it’s much higher than other local buses like Fairfax Connector and ART. OmniRide is nearly as high because long-distance commuter buses are generally more expensive to operate than local lines, but even it’s less than Metrobus.
This means the local systems can either run the same quality service as WMATA for less cost, or they can run more buses more often for the same cost.
At the extreme end of the scale, Arlington can run 2 ART buses for every 1 Metrobus, and spend the same amount of money.
In those terms, it’s no wonder counties are increasingly pumping more money into local buses. Where the difference is extreme, like in Arlington, officials are channeling the vast majority growth into local buses instead of WMATA ones, and even converting Metrobus lines to local lines.
Why is Metrobus so expensive to run?
Partly, Metrobus is expensive because longer bus lines are more expensive to run than shorter ones, so locals can siphon off the short intra-jurisdiction lines for themselves and leave the longer multi-jurisdiction ones to WMATA.
Another reason is labor. WMATA has a strong union, which drives up wages. The local systems have unions too, but they’re smaller and balkanized, and thus have less leverage.
Finally, a major part of the difference is simply accounting. WMATA’s operating figures include back-end administrative costs like the WMATA police force, plus capital costs like new Metro bus yards, whereas local services don’t count those costs as part of transit operating.
Montgomery County has a police department of course, and bus planners, and its own bus yards, but they’re funded separately and thus not included in Ride-On’s operating costs.
So part of the difference is real and part is imaginary. It doesn’t actually cost twice as much to run a Metrobus as an ART bus. But for local transit officials trying to put out the best service they can under constant budget constraints, all the differences matter.
New buses will run faster on 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue, thanks to good design
The 21 new articulated buses coming to 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue aren’t just prettier than the old buses. They’ll be a little faster, thanks to a more efficient interior layout.
One of the new buses. Photo from WMATA.
Not more buses, but better ones
These new accordion buses replace WMATA’s final remaining old-style articulated buses. When all 21 new ones are running, the last of the old buses with the boxy front will be retired.
Since the 21 new buses replace old ones that are also articulated, don’t expect to see more total articulated buses on 16th, 14th, or Georgia. There will simply be new buses instead of old ones.
But new buses have advantages: They break down less often, so the same number of buses are on the road more often. And their efficient low-floor design speeds up loading and unloading at stops.
Low-floor > high-floor
Riders boarding the old buses have to walk up steps, which creates a bottleneck and slows down service. It takes every able-bodied rider an extra half-second or so to climb bus steps, and less-able ones can take much longer. When a person in a wheelchair comes along, the delay can be significant.
A high-floor bus in Seattle. Photo by Oran Viriyincy.
On lines with very high ridership, all those seconds add up. Delays loading and unloading buses are one of the biggest sources of delay on 16th Street, and there’s no reason to think 14th or Georgia are any different.
Low-floor buses are more like trains—you step in, not up. One fluid and quick movement makes the whole process faster for everyone.
A low-floor bus in Denver. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
With these new buses, WMATA’s articulated bus fleet will now be 100% low-floor. That’s legitimately good news.
A lot’s happening in DC’s busiest bus corridor
Every day there are over 75,000 bus riders between downtown DC and Silver Spring. 50,000 of them ride the Metrobus on 16th, 14th, and Georgia alone. Combined, they make up by far the busiest bus corridor in the Washington region.
Getting all those riders through town efficiently is a big task. Buses already come every few minutes on all three streets. In recent years WMATA has added express buses to 16th and Georgia, and DC added a Circulator line to 14th.
This map shows the real-time location for every WMATA bus and train in the Washington region. It’s a cool way to see how much transit is out there, and where it’s running right this second.
Every WMATA bus and train. Image from TRAVIC.
The map is called TRAVIC and was produced by the University of Freiburg. The Washington map was made using using open data from WMATA.
Although the Washington map shows only WMATA transit, the same website includes maps for dozens of cities all over the world. You can compare what transit is like in diverse places, from Albuquerque to Paris.
Left: Albuquerque. Right: Paris. Images from TRAVIC.
Five bus lines everyone in DC should know, love, and use
Metrorail’s six lines are so easy to remember that most Washingtonians have memorized them. Here are five convenient bus lines that everyone in town should know just as well.
Simple map of 5 main DC bus lines. Original base map from Google.
These five lines are among Metro’s most convenient and popular. Buses on them come every few minutes, and follow easy-to-remember routes along major streets.
For the sort of Washingtonian who’s comfortable with Metrorail but hasn’t taken the leap to the bus, these five lines are a great place to start. Unlike some minor buses that only come once every half hour, you can treat these five lines the way you’d treat a rail line, or a DC Circulator: They’re always there, and it’s never a long wait before the next bus.
If you can memorize Metrorail’s Red and Orange Lines, you can memorize these streets:
Wisconsin / Pennsylvania (30 series): If you want a bus on Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, just remember to catch anything with a number in the 30s. Nine bus routes cover this line, each of them with slightly different details, but a similar overall path: The 30N, 30S, 31, 33, 32, 34, 36, and the express 37 and 39. Collectively they’re called the “30 series.”
The other four lines are similar. Each has multiple routes with slightly different details combining to form a family, or series. Within each series some individual routes may come at different times of day, or continue farther beyond the lines this map shows. But the key is to remember the series name.
16th Street (S series): Four routes, each beginning with the letter S: The S1, S2, S4, and the express S9.
14th Street (50 series): Three routes, each in the 50s: The 52, 53, and 54.
Georgia Avenue (70 series): Two routes, in the 70s: The local 70 and the express 79.
H Street (X series): Two routes, starting with X: The local X2 and the express X9. When it eventually opens (knock on wood), the DC Streetcar will beef up this same corridor.
For the Metrobus veterans among you, this is old news. About 80,000 people per day ride these five lines, so they’re hardly secrets. But if you’re not a frequent bus rider, give these a try.
In a perfect world, every major street in the region would have a bus line running every 5 minutes. In the world of constrained budgets, every dollar a transit agency spends on low-ridership or redundant bus routes eats into what it can run on high-demand main lines.
Sometimes it still makes sense to run low-ridership routes. But figuring out where to draw that line, who wins and who loses, is incredibly hard. And since every decision a transit agency makes will create some losers, they can only hope to create more winners overall.
Thus, making changes to bus lines is always a difficult business. Changes that benefit one person will often make another person upset. And since existing bus lines have existing customers, changing them can lead to an outcry.
Let’s see how Metro did.
WMATA’s popular MetroExtra buses perfectly illustrate how making some existing riders unhappy can yield big wins.
By skipping over half the bus stops on a line, MetroExtra buses make some riders unhappy, since they have to walk further to get a stop. But the trade-off is buses move a lot faster, making everyone else on the bus happier, and offering more people a reason to start riding.
MetroExtra bus. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
Since Metro began experimenting with MetroExtra eight or nine years ago, it’s been very successful, and very popular with riders. So it’s no surprise that just about every time WMATA tweaks its bus routes, they add service to more and more MetroExtra lines.
This round, Metro will add a new MetroExtra line on Veirs Mill Road, to be named the Q9. Veirs Mill connects the two branches of the Metrorail Red Line, from Rockville to Wheaton, and is already one of the busiest bus corridors in Maryland.
WMATA will also add more MetroExtra trips to three of the highest-ridership bus corridors in the entire region: The S9 on 16th Street, the 79 on Georgia Avenue, and the 16X on Columbia Pike in Arlington.
One MetroExtra line will see significant cuts: The 28X along Route 7 in Virginia. There, Metro is offering a choice of either cutting service from every 15 minutes to every 30, or ending the line at East Falls Church, eliminating service west to Tysons.
Metro plans to eliminate its 5A bus to Dulles Airport.
That’s an unpopular proposal. The 5A has been the main bus to Dulles for years, and for riders near its stops in L’Enfant Plaza, Rosslyn, and Herndon, it offers an express trip that’s often the fastest option.
But it’s redundant. The Silver Line Express bus from Wiehle station to Dulles is less expensive to operate since it’s a shorter route, and offers much more frequent service. And since many 5A riders have to ride Metro (or another bus) to get to Rosslyn or L’Enfant anyway, the Whiele bus is a better option than some assume.
While it’s nice to have an express bus from downtown to Dulles, a reasonable alternate exists, and so letting WMATA spend its resources somewhere else will probably help more riders, more often.
Except early in the morning.
The 5A makes a couple of early morning runs to Dulles before Metrorail opens. These are crucial runs, since the 5A is the only transit service to Dulles at those times. Even if early morning ridership is low, that’s an important cog in the regional transit network that ought to be there for people when they need it.
WINNER: Greenbelt Sundays
Buses will begin running on Sundays in Greenbelt on the C2, G12, and G14. This is a big win for a part of the region that’s had absolutely woeful weekend transit for a long time.
Yellow lines are bus routes with new Sunday service. Base map from WMATA.
LOSER: Low-ridership routes
WMATA is completely eliminating more than 20 low-ridership bus routes.
In most cases, they’re eliminating spurs and converting those trips to main line trips. For example, the 1Z will go away, but its trips will simply become 1B trips.
That will inconvenience a few riders who used the spur part of the 1Z, but the majority of 1-series riders would rather use the 1B, and they’ll get more buses.
WINNER: Colesville Road
The Z-series, which runs along Route 29 northeast from Silver Spring towards White Oak and Burtonsville, will have buses every 15 minutes on Saturdays, instead of every 30 minutes.
That’s the kind of frequent service that riders can use without worrying about consulting a schedule. Jumping up to that level is a huge win for eastern Montgomery County.
TOO SOON TO TELL: The Georgia Avenue leg of the Veirs Mill line
WMATA’s Q-series on Veirs Mill Road is one of the most important bus lines in Maryland. That’s why it’s getting MetroExtra service.
But one of the biggest cuts in Metro’s proposal will truncate the Q-series buses, ending them at Wheaton where Veirs Mill Road terminates, rather than having them continue south on Georgia Avenue to Silver Spring.
Q-series buses will stop at Wheaton. Base image from WMATA.
On the one hand, this is a major loss. The Wheaton-to-Silver Spring leg of Georgia Avenue is packed with bus riders. Cutting service there hurts one of the most productive parts of the Metrobus network.
But on other hand, there’s a lot of transit service on Georgia Avenue even without the Q-series. The Y-series runs every 10 minutes on Georgia Avenue, and the Metrorail Red Line runs directly below in a subway. Y-series buses are packed, which may be why WMATA is offering a rail fare discount between Silver Spring and Wheaton.
And there are benefits to a shorter Q-series. Buses come more often on a shorter route, and are more likely to stay on schedule. Ending the Q-series at Veirs Mill will likely improve the reliability of buses, and possibly reduce how long riders have to wait at stops.
Losing Q buses on Georgia Avenue is clearly concerning, but if it helps the rest of the line, if the new Q9 is a hit, and if other transit on Georgia can pick up the slack, things may end up better overall. It’s going to be an experiment, and it might fail. But it’s worth a shot.
Public hearing tonight
WMATA is hosting a public hearing on these proposals tonight, at 6:00 pm, at 600 5th Street NW.