Image by thisisbossi used with permission.

What should buses mean for the Washington region? How many should there be, and who should run them? What kinds of services (like locals, “rapid” limited-stops, expresses, etc.) should we have? How can the bus better serve people and stay cost-effective? These are some questions that might be answered through a new study, the Bus Transformation Project.

WMATA hired Boston Consulting Group, AECOM, and Foursquare ITP to run the study effort, which will be formally announced this week. The team will be pulling together regional transit officials, organization leaders, riders, and many more over the next year or so to think about the big questions about buses.

This project represents a big opportunity to elevate bus service in our region. WMATA has been very focused on its rail service for many years. That's with good reason, since trains were catching on fire while buses were not, but buses remain a very important part of our region's transit (and the trains aren't on fire anymore). It's exciting that WMATA is now dedicating energy to thinking about the future of bus.

Buses represent the biggest opportunity to improve transit for more people, cost-effectively. Plus, our region has a big equity gap between rail riders and bus riders: Rail is more expensive than the bus, and it's also more expensive to live near a rail station. Therefore, the typical rail rider is significantly higher income than the typical bus rider. Making bus service much more than an afterthought can help close the gap in mobility options available to lower-income residents.

What this project will and won’t think about

One thing the study is definitely not, officials insist: It's not a Jarrett Walker-style “network redesign,” like Houston and many other cities have done. That might come later, but this study won't look at individual lines and streets. Instead, it's looking at broader policies and issues.

What are those? That'll mostly be up to four committees which are guiding the effort, and riders engaged through focus groups and surveys. (Disclosure: David is a member of the Executive Steering Committee for the project.)

Here are seven things we'd like to see this study consider. What are yours?

  1. Improve actual bus service: This is tops, of course. Dedicated lanes, signal priority, off-board fare payment, and other changes can make people’s travel faster and more reliable. Also, set clear standards for higher-quality services.

  2. Better integrate Metrobus and jurisdictional systems: Our area has eight major bus operators. It’s hard to keep track. Plan the networks more in harmony, and clarify what services should be Metro’s versus jurisdictional. Also, for riders, it doesn’t matter who runs the bus. Make information, fares, and maybe even branding more seamless.

  3. Simplify bus numbering and information: 8W? 30N? U7? Who can keep track? Other cities have systems that make it easier to know what kind of bus each route is. Couple this with other ways to make our very large bus system more comprehensible.

  4. Make the fares more fair: WMATA penalizes riders for transferring between rail and bus more than any other large city, yet many buses end at rail stations. Help people use the network as one integrated system with free transfers. Include jurisdictional buses, too!

  5. Improve and encourage passes: For regular commuters, transit should be a subscription like Netflix. Current passes still split rail and bus; integrate them. And provide more and better passes for visitors so they can easily take transit. Make passes cover jurisdictional buses.

  6. Reward bus improvement in the funding rules: The various jurisdictions share the cost of bus service, but should they share the savings if just one takes steps to speed up buses? Reward ones who make buses better and more efficient, either with more service or lower subsidies. Also, make sure that a new 3% cap on subsidy increases doesn’t prevent one jurisdiction from adding service it wants to pay for.

  7. Position WMATA to be a 21st century agency: Technology is changing. We have ride-hailing now. Autonomous vehicles are on the horizon. Will WMATA be an innovative, nimble organization that adapts to changing technology and tries new surface transit models? Or, will its inertia weigh it down? Right now, many would bet on the latter, but that’s not good for anyone.

Finally, one thing this study should not think about: cutting overall bus service. The region should not step away from its commitment to buses as a major part of our transportation options. A lot of people including us saw last year's Metro funding report by former USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood as recommending cutting bus service, though the LaHood team later said that wasn't quite what they meant.

Metro has to keep its costs under control, but should not achieve that through cuts. If it can attract more riders to the bus, generating more revenue, great! If local jurisdictions want to take some over, sure (as we will discuss in item #2). But we strongly oppose an outcome of this study which leads to a net decline in total bus service. DC Sustainable Transportation made this point in a letter to WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld in December, 2017.

We will be posting articles about these in an upcoming series. What do you think WMATA and the region should look at about buses?

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.

DW Rowlands is an adjunct chemistry professor and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website.  They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.