Image from SWTLQTC.

Residents and workers in Southwest Waterfront want to restore a discontinued free shuttle bus, the Shuttle-Bug, that operated between G and M streets SW from Sixth Street to slightly past Third Street. 

The Shuttle-Bug connected thousands of residents in that area, including people with low incomes and older adults, to the Safeway, CVS, and Waterfront Metro station. While it is easy to recognize the social benefits of such a service, there are economic benefits as well for DC in reducing dependency on MetroAccess and even fixed route bus service.

According to the Post, Shuttle-Bug operated for 18 months “as a way to offset the hardship that construction posed to pedestrians.”  Now that the construction is complete, city officials contend that the need for the service no longer exits.

However, designers of the shuttle service from the Southwest Action Team (SWAT) have a different memory.  They state that the service was developed and funded as a neighborhood crime mitigation measure.  They recall that prior to Shuttle-Bug’s creation, several community residents were assaulted, robbed, and, in one case, murdered along their walk to the Metro station.  MPD Assistant Chief of Police, Diane Groomes, wrote a letter of support to continue the Shuttle-Bug program citing the safety benefits.

According to the Post article, a survey conducted by students of George Mason University “found that one-third of participants said they took the shuttle for safety reasons” and that “twenty-five percent said they had difficulty walking, and nearly two-thirds said they do not own a car or do not drive.”  Consequently, designers of the Shuttle-Bug service believe that the service addressed unmet community needs.

In addition, the Arena Stage, which was closed during the Shuttle-Bug’s period of operation, will re-open in October 2010.  Arena Stage patrons who take Metro will need safe, reliable transportation from the Metro to Arena Stage and back again.  Consequently, staff at Arena Stage also drafted a letter of support to continue the Shuttle-Bug service.

Shuttle-Bug ran on a fixed-route basis, complete with bus stop signs.  If a rider with disabilities wanted a special drop-off that was safe, the driver would accommodate the request provided the drop-off was on the route. 

Shuttle-Bug served the morning peak from 7-10 am, the evening peak starting at 4 pm, weeknights for after-work grocery shoppers and people who attended Blues Night on Monday or Jazz Night on Friday, and a Tuesday/Friday 10:30 am to 1:30 pm service that ran on a slightly larger route to serve another building with a high percentage of older adults.

The average number of rides per day on Shuttle-Bug ranged from 98 to 165, and the total number of rides provided since the program’s inception was 44,055.  According to SWAT, fare revenues were unnecessary because the cost to collect, handle, and secure the small amount of fare revenue would exceed the value of the fares collected.

How Shuttle-Bug Could Save DC Money

Since about twenty-five percent of Shuttle-Bug riders expressed having difficulty walking, it is likely that at least twenty-five percent qualify for MetroAccess service.  MetroAccess service costs on average $38 per ride, whereas the average operating cost per ride on Shuttle-Bug was $4.98. 

Now that the Shuttle-Bug service no longer exists, it is likely that those individuals who qualify for MetroAccess who rode Shuttle-Bug will go back to using the more costly MetroAccess service.  As we know, MetroAccess is subsidized by the WMATA Compact jurisdictions including the District of Columbia.  Clearly, $4.98 per ride is a bargain when compared to $38.

Even when you compare Shuttle-Bug to traditional fixed-route bus service, the cost differentials are striking.  The cost per hour to operate Shuttle-Bug was only $60.11 due to there being no overhead costs.  The current cost for WMATA to provide fixed-route bus service is $102.41 per hour.  (Note: I provide this comparison only to show how much it would cost if WMATA provided the Shuttle-Bug service, and not to suggest that regional bus service is the same as a community shuttle.)

Shuttle-Bug was funded through a public-private partnership, with Waterfront Associates, LLC (the developers of Waterfront Station) and Fairfield Residential (the owner/developer of the View at Waterfront) funding 70% and the District of Columbia funding the remaining 30%.  SWAT is presently requesting that the District of Columbia fund the Shuttle-Bug program for an additional year while they seek diversified funding. 

One possible strategy to diversify funding would be to ask area businesses that benefited from the service (Safeway, CVS, etc.) to contribute to the service.  However, achieving a new public-private partnership would take both time and a demonstrated financial commitment from the District of Columbia.

Shuttle-Bug riders and community residents have already submitted over 500 signed testimonials to continue the shuttle service. According to SWAT, this represents ten percent of the 5,000 households in the target area served by Shuttle-Bug.

Shuttle-Bug is a less expensive option for the District of Columbia in this neighborhood compared with traditional MetroAccess and Metrobus services.  Of course, some will argue that Metrobus and Metrorail customers should just walk the four or so blocks to the Waterfront Metro station.  Nevertheless, the potential for significant paratransit cost savings for local governments makes Shuttle-Bug an alternative transportation model worthy of further exploration in our region and beyond.

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Penny Everline has served on transportation advisory groups at the local, regional, and national levels including the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board Transportation Committee, the Transportation Planning Board’s Access for All Advisory Committee, and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) National Work Group.  She recently left her job with Easter Seals Project ACTION, a national training and technical assistance center funded through the Federal Transit Administration, to focus on advocacy work at the local/regional level.  She holds an MSW degree and teaches at George Mason University.