Photo by DavidSC78.

Saturday afternoon, in the rain, Greater Greater Fiancée and I waited 31 minutes at 20th and K for a westbound Circulator. The Circulator advertises a bus every 10 minutes, all day. Three buses passed in the other direction while we waited. After 27 minutes, a bus in our direction zipped by without stopping. Another bus showed up four minutes later, but meanwhile we fumed at the Circulator and debated whether to wait for another.

Certainly, many of you have had similar experiences. We’re not the first nor the last to suffer from bus bunching and unreliable schedules. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t complacently tolerate this. We won’t entice people to take the Circulator instead of driving to Georgetown if they have to stand around on K Street for 30 minutes to do so.

What can we do to make the Circulator experience greater?

  • NextBus! Having a way to look up real-time bus arrival information would have eased the wait considerably, or at least told us to ditch the Circulator and take a cab. There’s a phone number on the sign, but on weekends, all you can get from calling is recorded information about the Circulator or a message that their office is closed. Unfortunately, NextBus won’t work on the Circulator when it first launches. That means that by switching the N22 and 98 buses to Circulator service, we are keeping those routes off NextBus at least for now. DDOT should explore how to integrate Circulator locations into NextBus as soon as possible.
  • Consolidate the stops. The Circulator stops on K Street. Meanwhile, the 30s buses were running at the same time on I Street, one block away. All of these buses should run on one street and stop in the same places. If we build the K Street Transitway, the street will be better able to handle the large volume of buses and help them all move quickly along the corridor. Meanwhile, if well-designed, NextBus could also help with this situation. by letting riders know about parallel routes. In my case, it could have suggested walking one block and waiting for a different line. If Metro allowed riders to keep using the unofficial system, we could discover or experiment with use cases such as these and suggest improvements before it’s too late.
  • Fix the bunching. Metro has announced plans to enable supervisors to dynamically fix bunching problems on bus lines. What is DDOT doing about that on the Circulator?
  • Improve the signs. There’s a Metrobus map on the bus shelter at 20th and K. Unfortunately, it says nothing about the Circulator whatsoever. This is another silly consequence of having bus systems operated by different agencies. As we waited, a pair of tourists waited even more impatiently. After 25 minutes, we discovered that they weren’t even going to Georgetown. They were going to the World War II memorial, and thought that the Circulator would take them to the Mall. There’s another Circulator that does circulate on the Mall. In the 25 minutes they waited, they could have taken the Metro, an 80 bus (one of which did pass by), or a taxi.

The Circulator is supposed to help people travel east-west and north-south along downtown’s major axes smoothly and easily. Today, though, outside peak times buses often don’t show up, and during peak times they crawl in traffic. We have to do better.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.