Image by mikebot on Flickr.

In many suburban jurisdictions, bus systems feel like an afterthought, with tiny bus flags at the side of a road and confusing or even nonexistent information about which bus to take.

Most suburban routes run less frequently than Metrobus routes in DC, making them harder to use. But it would cost a lot of money to increase frequency. Meanwhile, for a very small investment, jurisdictions like Fairfax County could make buses much easier to use with simple wayfinding improvements.

Bus stop flags should identify the routes that stop there; believe it or not, at least in Fairfax, they don’t today. And buses should add automated announcements of the next stop.

Since the buses are so infrequent, better wayfinding is even more critical. If a rider misses a stop or misses a bus while waiting at the wrong stop, he or she could end up waiting an hour for the next bus, or have to take a very long walk to the destination.

Fairfax’s county government offices are difficult to access by public transit. Only two Fairfax Connector routes serve them. But not all residents can afford to or want to own a car, and those who can’t or won’t drive are at a decided disadvantage in being able to fully participate in society.

I had to visit the county seat two years ago to register to vote in Virginia; my permanent address was then my parents’ house in Kingstowne. I had to register in person during office hours, but my parents both worked. Living in the District and lacking access to a car, I took the Metro to Vienna and then took a Fairfax Connector to the county office.

I had never been to the county offices before and I wasn’t familiar with the area. The stops weren’t announced, so I had to be extra careful about when to get off. I ended up getting off the bus too early and had to walk the rest of the way.

When I left the office, I walked to what I thought was the stop for the bus back to the Metro. The bus stop sign didn’t have the route number. Suburban streets also aren’t marked as clearly as city streets, so finding the intersection where my bus stopped wasn’t as easy.

It turns out I was at the wrong bus stop, but as the bus approached, I was able to hustle to the correct stop, which luckily was nearby. If the stop flag had been marked, I would have known at which stop I should wait. If I had missed the bus, I would have had to wait at least 30 minutes for the next one.

When traveling after dark, it can be hard to identify bus stops while on the bus. Announcing the stops would make it easier for riders to know where they are. Stop announcements don’t always work, but having them fail sometimes is better than not having them at all.

Adding route numbers to bus stops signs would require a minimal investment, but would make it much easier for riders to know if they are in the right place. Fairfax Connector route numbers are often shown on shelters, where they exist, but not on stop flags. Metrobus, Montgomery’s Ride On and Arlington’s ART, on the other hand, show route numbers on almost all stop flags. Ride On’s even show the route’s ultimate destination, so you don’t find yourself on the correct route but going the wrong way.

Automated stop announcements require that buses be equipped with GPS, which is a bigger investment. Ride On is piloting real-time tracking, which would be useful for the Connector. GPS tracking could also bring NextBus’ ability to predict how many minutes until the bus arrives to Fairfax Connector riders.

More attractive, easier to understand bus service can make suburban communities easier to navigate and reduce the need for driving. These two wayfinding improvements won’t suddenly bring residents out of their cars. But they can make life easier for current bus riders and make buses a better option for those hesitant to ride.

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Jamie Scott is a resident of Ward 3 in DC and a regular Metrobus commuter. He believes in good government, livable communities and quality public transit. Jamie holds a B.A. in Government from Georgetown University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown.