40% of the people traveling in vehicles along H and I Streets near the White House are on only 2% of the vehicles: local and commuter buses. That makes this a perfect spot to build bus lanes, which will both save money and improve service at the same time.

For years now, Metro has been talking about “bus priority.” It’s now taken an important step to study how to actually make this a reality on H and I.

Buses using H and I (and K), plus traffic counts. Image from WMATA.

The District alone spends $190 million per year on bus service, 3½ the amount it spends on Metrorail and 2 times the whole DDOT budget. While much press scrutiny goes into WMATA’s administrative budget items like executive travel, there are enormous opportunities to save far more taxpayer money, and provide a better service to riders, by streamlining bus service.

Bus lanes, queue jumpers and other road features would help the buses avoid getting stuck in traffic. A bus stuck in traffic not only delays riders but costs a lot of money in driver time and forces Metro to buy more buses. Metro believes that the top priority spot to try a bus lane is on H and I streets around the White House, where traffic congestion is high and there are many, many buses.

Unfortunately, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy has not made bus priority much of a priority thus far, though DDOT did agree to work with WMATA on a study. That study took a while to fund, then got stuck in WMATA procurement for even more months. But it’s finally underway and generating some results. The study is looking at H Street from 17th Street to New York Avenue, and I Street from 13th to 19th.

PlanItMetro posted some findings that underscore the need for bus lanes. 50 different bus services use H and I, including Metrobuses, Circulator (where the 14th Street line turns around at McPherson), Loudoun County commuter buses, and PRTC (Prince William, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Manassas, Manassas Park, and Fredericksburg) commuter buses. They transport 40% of the people using only 2% of the vehicles, but the buses get stuck in traffic and even are only able to travel half as fast as the other vehicles, not counting the time they spend at stops.

If buses got their own lane during rush hours, the road could move even more people than it does now. The curb lanes on H and I are already devoted to parking off-peak and are travel lanes during peak, so a simple approach would be to make one of those part-time lanes remain parking off-peak but serve only buses in the peak.

There are some operational challenges to ponder. For example, what do drivers turning across the lane do? Do they merge into the lane before an intersection? If so, and if they then have to wait for pedestrians before turning, will that back up the bus lane? New York does it this way on its new(ish) 1st and 2nd Avenue bus lanes, and they have been working well.

DC actually already has some bus lanes, on 7th and 9th Streets, which don’t work well at all. One reason is that there aren’t that many buses on those streets, and so the lanes stay mostly empty of buses most of the time. Also, partly since there are not so many buses, people drive in the lanes all the time, and DC doesn’t do anything about it.

Drivers will do the same on H and I lanes unless there is enforcement. New York has cameras, and DC probably needs to do the same. The cameras could simply look at 2 spots, one before and one after an intersection, and give a ticket to a car that appears in both spots, proving that it was in the lane but didn’t turn.

As with other camera tickets, the fine probably does not need to be very high to work. It just needs to be high enough to make it more worthwhile to wait in the regular lanes. Or, perhaps the fine could even be lower, and serve as a kind of toll; you can use the bus lane, if you want to pay a few dollars.

This video describes New York’s lanes. They also have protected bike lanes on the same street, but those are far wider than ours; here, the bike lanes will go on L and M, and cyclists can also use the closed Pennsylvania Avenue.

The PlanItMetro post also suggests that Metro will look at another, stranger but possibly (or possibly not) more effective option: a contraflow lane. Instead of putting a bus lane on the right side of the street, it could be on the left and buses would travel in the opposite direction of traffic. Then, left turning cars would cross the lane but not need to merge. On the other hand, if someone accidentally drove into or double parked in the lane, it would really block the buses, which can’t just drive out into another lane to go around an obstruction.

London has many contraflow bus lanes:

According to Metro planning director Tom Harrington, they have now begun studying alternatives for how to design the lanes, and expect to finish 1 or 2 conceptual designs for the most promising options by December. The onus will then shift to the District government to actually build a bus lane, since it controls the roads, signs, parking, enforcement cameras, and so on.

Hopefully riders, stuck in traffic, will not have to wait even more years to see the fruit of this important project, which we’ve already talked about for years. It could be the biggest win for both transit costs and quality of service in a long time.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.