Last week, Metro released a plan for late-night bus service if late-night rail closures become permanent. Our contributors and readers took a look, and they think it’d leave a lot of people without a reliable and practical way to get around.

Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.

First things first: before it moves forward with any plans to extend the late-night rail closures beyond SafeTrack, the agency needs to explain why doing so is actually necessary; right now, we don’t know that it is. If it does need to happen, though, it’s imperative that Metro beef up its nighttime bus service so people who depend on rail have a viable transportation option.

According to our contributors and readers, the current late-night bus proposal isn’t up to snuff.

The proposed plan is confusing

Our staff editor, Jonathan Neeley, noticed a lack of detail in the plan as soon as it came out:

Does anyone know exactly what times this proposal is for? The Metro site says ‘The changes are based on recent ridership data showing where Metrorail customers are traveling during the hours under consideration for closure,’ but those hours aren’t actually posted on the same page as the route proposals.

Proposed supplemental bus service. Click for a larger version. Map by WMATA.

Reader SM noted another big piece of missing information: “This map compiles in one place the buses that already run late at night, but it doesn’t indicate whether buses will run more frequently than they do now to make up for the lack of rail service.”

GGWash contributor Joanne Pierce also noted that the frequency of service is likely not as advertised:

Looking at the map, the transition between shorter wait times and longer wait times is confusing. If you’re at Pentagon waiting for the 13Y to get into DC then the inbound bus is coming from a zone with 30 minute frequency and switches to less than 30 minute frequency at Pentagon.

It seems that the plan is to have buses skip several rail stations

Dan Reed noticed that “Several Metro stations would have little or no late-night connections.” That’s a problem because a lot of people live near Metro stations are transit users, and many of the existing bus lines, which the late-night plan is based on, are specifically designed to feed into rail stations. Without service along the entire rail corridor, the system is missing its most crucial trunk routes.

Reader Arthur noted that some of the late-night extensions seem half-hearted:

It’s interesting that they’d have [less than 30 minute frequency] service to White Flint but then not continue at all to Rockville or Shady Grove. If the point is to replace Metrorail service then shouldn’t the bus replacements at least provide [30 minute frequency] service along all the existing rail line paths?

“Even though I live less than a 10 minute walk to two Metrorail stations,” said reader ex804, “‘late-night’ Metrobus service— which would require a couple transfers and 2+ hours— wouldn’t get me closer than 1.5 miles from home.”

A lot of trips would take a very long time and multiple transfers

“There are also some station pairings that will take a very long time to travel between under this ‘plan,’” said Steven Yates. “For instance, traveling between East Falls Church and Waterfront takes about 40 minutes via Metrorail. According to Google Maps, a trip leaving East Falls Church would take nearly two hours with three transfers.”

Stephen Hudson added, “If you were a service worker commuting from Dupont Circle to Rockville late night, you would have to make a minimum of two transfers. Getting between DC and Alexandria looks equally as painful. Considering that a number of late night service workers likely live in the suburbs, I think these gaps must be addressed.”

Reader Johan also noticed that the plan includes some bizarre transfers: “Does this map tell you that if you want to go from downtown to New Carrollton at night, you should transfer in Silver Spring? And if you are going to Franconia, transfer in Ballston and Dunn Loring? How much time does that take?”

Here’s an idea for a better approach

Ideally, Metro can find a way to do track maintenance without permanently ending late-night rail service. If that doesn’t happen, our contributors and readers think bus service should be easily understandable, frequent, include logical transfers, and cover every station.

One solution, which several readers and contributors argued for, is for late-night bus service that mirrors the existing Metro lines as much as possible. Earlier this year, Gray Kimbrough described how Montreal does this, and more, for their late night bus service:

Montreal’s current night network is relatively recent, the result of many incremental improvements like a slight retooling in 2011. These are the most important characteristics:

  • Service every night of the week, for all hours when the Metro is closed.

  • Even in the dead of night, buses are at most 45 minutes apart on all routes.

  • The routes are long, designed to require no transfers.

  • On an important central corridor with lots of bars and restaurants, headways are 15 minutes all night.

In Montreal, late night bus service isn’t an afterthought

These routes aren’t just a stopgap measure for some hours when the Metro is closed; they are designed to be an integral part of the transit system and provide meaningful, frequent service all night long.  While at some hours headways lengthen to 30 or 45 minutes, the routes are designed to take people where they need to go without transfers. 

Also, information about these routes is readily accessible; a map of the night bus network is freely available, and when riders look up the operating hours of Metro lines, they see very clearly that complementary night bus service operates at other hours.

What do you think of the current proposal for late-night bus service?

Kelli Raboy works as a federal contractor supporting research on vehicle automation and communications. She loves all things cities, public transit, and rail. She lives in Navy Yard.