Photo by kyle.rw on Flickr.
What makes the DC Circulator different from “a regular bus”? Is it just that it’s red? The lines are a little straighter? Or is the only difference that the DC government controls it instead of WMATA? If DC officials don’t have a clear vision, they might wreck the success they’ve built.
The Circulator is a great bus because it runs on short headways of no more than 10 minutes, on easy-to-understand routes that connect key activity centers. You don’t have to look at a schedule. You can just know you wait at a stop for a little while and a bus should come. And you can probably keep in your head where the stops are.
Unfortunately, transit planners at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) are considering adding some Circulator routes with a 12-15 minute headway, Bob Thomson reported. That would be a bad call. Everyone wants the Circulator in his or her neighborhood (here’s an example), but they want what the Circulator means. Water it down too much, and it stops meaning much.
In fact, according to Joe Sternlieb, the Georgetown BID director who was deeply involved in the original Circulator when he worked at the Downtown BID, the first proposals were for a bus running every 5 minutes. That changed to 10, and now the Circulator aims for a 10-minute headway but often gaps between buses can stretch much longer.
If there’s a place that would support a 12-15 minute Circulator route but not a 10-minute one, DDOT would have to have a very good reason not to just make it a Metrobus route. If every neighborhood had a Circulator route, but some routes ran every 15 minutes, some even more, some not very long hours, then the brand only means it’s DC’s bus system and not WMATA’s, like Ride On or ART. Good bus branding tells the consumer something, not about the government but about the service.
One complicating factor is that the Circulator has a cheaper fare than Metrobus. This is because DC has been willing to spend some money to keep the fares low, but not for the whole Metrobus system. That distorts transit planning, because many communities understandably want a cheap bus.
We need more routes that run frequently, not more routes that don’t. The Circulator aims to connect activity centers, but it could be that the Circulator, as a brand, is not for every route in every neighborhood. Maybe we need another brand for a different type of route.
DDOT is also considering taking over “non-regional” bus routes from WMATA, which are routes that don’t run in Maryland and Virginia, don’t serve large numbers of Maryland and Virginia residents transferring from rail, and don’t get any money from Maryland or Virginia. But some of these are low-ridership, low-frequency neighborhood routes. The Circulator wouldn’t be the right brand for those either.
Not every bus has to have the same name. Let’s have the Circulator keep doing what it does well, and where that can apply elsewhere, do it there also. Let’s also expand and improve bus service, but without diluting what the Circulator means.