What the new S3 bus route *could* look like. Pink lines are alternate routes.
WMATA is considering tweaking the busy 16th Street bus line with a new route that would run only between Columbia Heights and downtown. The change is proposed to relieve extreme crowding on the S-series Metrobuses.
Why it’s necessary and fair
Imagine if most rush hour Orange Line trains blew through all the Arlington stations without stopping. Would that be fair to riders in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor?
That’s essentially what is happening today on WMATA’s 16th Street bus line. It’s so crowded during peak hours that buses often have to stop picking up passengers, forcing riders south of Columbia Heights to watch while one bus after another passes by without stopping.
WMATA added more articulated buses in June. That made a noticeable difference, but the problem didn’t go away completely. Adding still more articulated buses isn’t an option, because there’s not enough parking space at bus storage yards.
Last Monday community members met with WMATA bus planners, and devised a potential solution: add a new route to the S-series that only goes as far north as Columbia Heights.
That makes a ton of sense. It would be a natural counterbalance to the S9, which provides a great service for riders making long trips, but is essentially useless for close-in riders. This new route would provide a correspondingly great service for close-in trips.
What it will look like
Presumably if the new route moves forward it will be called the S3.
WMATA’s naming convention for buses starting with letters is that even numbered routes run all day, odd numbered routes run only at peak times, and high numbers go to express lines. So the S1 is a local route that runs only at rush hour, the S9 is a rush hour express, and the S2 and S4 are all day locals. S3 is the next available slot for another rush hour local. S5 is another possibility, but S3 seems more likely.
Obviously the new S3 will use 16th Street, but where it terminates on its north and south ends is an open question. The attached map shows one possibility.
One of the reasons 16th Street buses are so successful is that they’re simple. Riders can reasonably expect any bus they board on 16th Street to stay on 16th Street. That simplicity needs to be protected as much as possible, so the S3 should avoid deviating too far from the S2 and S4.
Another reason to avoid going very far east or west is simply to save time. The main purpose of the S3 will be north-south travel, so time spent going east or west is wasted. Wasted time means more buses will be necessary.
On the north end Columbia Heights is the obvious target for a terminus, since that’s about where the capacity problems start to become serious. On the map, I’ve shown a simple turnaround that keeps the bus close to 16th Street, but the route could go east to 14th Street to provide a Metrorail transfer, or west to the Calvert Street trolley turnaround to provide a bus layover parking spot.
Another option would be to stop somewhere along U Street, and not go as far north as Columbia Heights at all.
On the south end, the existing S-series gets complicated. The S1 turns west and goes to Foggy Bottom, the S2 and some S4s turn east and go to Federal Triangle, while the S9 and the rest of the S4s make a quick turnaround at Franklin Square.
At rush hour all the S buses empty out considerably at K Street, so S3 will get the biggest bang for its buck if it turns around as soon after K Street as possible.
That’s probably why the S9 ends at Franklin Square, and is probably why it will make sense for the S3 to do the same.
No matter how this idea evolves, it’s a great conversation to have. This is exactly the kind of creative planning that marks a great transit agency, and productive community leaders. Kudos to Dupont ANC commissioner Kishan Putta and WMATA bus planner Jim Hamre for making this proposal.