Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Mayor Gray’s budget puts serious money behind building the streetcar, but makes little mention of bus service. The mayor has demonstrated a clear and very welcome commitment to transit; to truly achieve his goals of boosting transit ridership, DC needs to improve its bus service as well.

The streetcar is not for every neighborhood

Streetcars have advantages over buses. They also have costs, including financial ones: streetcars cost more than buses. Streetcars also can’t deviate around double-parked delivery vans or reroute to another road because of construction.

Other cities’ experiences have shown that streetcars do attract more “choice riders,” people who might not otherwise take transit, and also attract people and businesses to a corridor in a way that buses don’t. Because of their economic development power, we should be able to pay much of the cost out of the extra taxes from the development we get from streetcars, and/or through direct “value capture” programs that make those who benefit economically pay some of the cost.

Still, streetcars aren’t going to be especially fast. They will often be slower than buses. And in many parts of DC, where economic development isn’t the goal and capacity isn’t the problem, building a streetcar isn’t always the answer. What we can, and must, do is make buses a more appealing mode of transit.

We need a great “frequent bus network” as well

Imagine if you could walk to certain spots in any neighborhood, wait in a comfortable location with real-time screens, and know that within a short time, a vehicle would come take you along one of several high-capacity routes that lead to other adjacent neighborhoods and across the city.

Metrorail does that now. Some of the limited-stop Circulators and Metrobus Express routes do as well. We can gain a lot of mobility for residents by adding to the number of high-frequency routes, making them even more frequent, and helping residents know about the routes by publishing “frequent network” maps that cover both the Circulator and certain Metrobus routes.

These routes all would come often enough, including nights and weekends, and run late enough that people who live nearby could choose not to own cars, use the routes (or bike or walk) for most trips, and have backup options like Zipcar, car2go, Uber, and taxis when necessary.

Where should DC invest in bus?

DC can expand and improve its frequent bus network in two ways: create new frequent routes, and make existing frequent routes faster.

New routes can be Metrobus routes or Circulator as long as they run frequently, 7 days a week, and late into the evening. Last year, a panel of residents, business leaders, and officials created a Circulator plan which lays out places for several of these routes.

Proposed Circulator expansion.  Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3

Most immediately, the plan suggests extending the Dupont-Rosslyn Circulator to U Street. There’s no good, direct transit right now between U Street and Dupont, and it also would create a direct link between U Street and Georgetown.

Beyond adding routes, DC can speed up existing routes. There are many spots where buses spend a lot of time in traffic. In places, buses are frequent enough that they could get their own lane, at least at peak times. WMATA and DDOT have been collaborating on a study of bus lanes on H and I Streets past the White House.


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

Elsewhere, maybe a short “queue jumper” lane would help buses bypass a tough spot. Or retiming signals could help buses spend less time waiting for a turn. Or buses could get signal priority to hold yellow lights long enough for them to pass.

When the Circulator turns left from Connecticut onto Calvert after leaving the Woodley Park Metro, it has to make a tough left turn, and WMATA bus planners have said this is a reason they don’t send the 90s buses to Woodley Park. Could this intersection give buses a short, special phase to go right from the curb to Calvert?

We don’t have a lot of studies or analyses of where the buses get most delayed. This hasn’t received a lot of attention from DDOT in recent years. Mary Cheh tried to put money in the budget for DDOT to work on bus projects or have staff focusing on bus priority, but nothing has really happened yet.

It’s long past time to get moving on buses. Mayor Gray has set an ambitious goal that 50% of trips take transit by 2032. Building streetcars will help DC get there, but streetcars are one piece of the transit puzzle. Buses are the other biggest piece. For many neighborhoods and many corridors, they are the right piece, as long as we work hard to make them desirable options, as they can be.


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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.