The new Circulator route on the National Mall hit a snafu this week. Three buses blocked an intersection for over half an hour by not deviating from their routes even when a traffic collision made staying the course impossible.

Buses and cars behind a collision. Photo from Jeff Sellenrick.

When two tour buses collided, they blocked cars from continuing on Madison Drive across 14th Street and toward 15th. Rather than turning and going to 15th another way, the Circulator buses waited at the intersection, blocking other vehicles from turning left or right.

When Jeffrey, a reader who told us about the situation, asked his bus driver why they didn’t try to use a detour, the driver replied that making a right-hand turn to try and circle around the collision wasn’t part of their route. Another driver said they were waiting for permission to make the detour.

The total delay was around 40 minutes.

Obviously, buses aren’t mechanically barred from making right turns. And a number of contributors can recall times when their Metrobus drivers, whose rules come from WMATA rather than DDOT, have taken detours.

We’re left, then, with this question: What’s DDOT’s plan for when buses arrive at an unexpected impasse?

Spokeswoman Michelle Phipps-Evans told me that Circulator drivers sometimes take detours when there are severe accidents, and that the decision to do so or not is made by the bus operator, who works for a company that DDOT contracts. Once drivers make a decision, DDOT tries to let the public know what’s going on via Twitter.

To be fair, detours aren’t always simple matters

Bus detours require a lot of communication between passengers, drivers, and the dispatchers that monitor bus movements. A bus needs to get back to its route as quickly as possible, both so that people can get to where they need and expect to go and so people waiting down the line aren’t doing so in vain.

Another issue is that buses that need to make wide turns can’t use just any road. Also, for buses using the Mall, which is much different from the regular street grid, it can be particularly difficult to find an alternate route that works: “circling the block” can mean going a mile out of the way.

Circulator drivers didn’t cause the initial traffic jam. But they may have made it worse than it had to be. Hopefully, fewer traffic collisions and better training and coordination for DDOT’s bus drivers can help prevent a situation like this in the future.


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Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.