Image by MW Transit Photos used with permission.

The Bus Transformation Project, a regional consensus-building exercise led by WMATA, will kick off soon. We identified seven ways we hope the study team and regional partners will seek to improve buses in the Washington area, and will post about each.

First up, the most important and, to most riders, obvious: improve the actual bus service. Here are some ways to do this.

Bus routes should operate whenever people need them, and not only during the day

Frequency and hours of operation are two of the most important criteria for determining if a transit line will be useful in one’s everyday life, as opposed to only for rush-hour commuting.

If we want to encourage urban densities and low car usage, we need to provide bus service that people can count on in the evening and on weekends, and that won’t force them to schedule their day around the bus schedule.

Bus routes within the District largely have reasonable operating hours, but matters are different in the suburbs. One jurisdictional bus provider—Prince George’s County’s TheBus—doesn’t operate any routes on weekends or evenings, and many suburban routes throughout the region (including the 83 and 86 US-1 in Maryland) have limited or no service at these times.

Map of San Francisco’s Owl service by SFMTA.

Furthermore, evening bus service on Metrobus routes generally ends around midnight or 1 am, perhaps a little later on Friday and Saturday night. Unlike many major American cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, Washington lacks all-night bus service.

While Metrorail operating hours are limited by the need to do maintenance at night—and the reality that it doesn’t make sense to keep the whole system open for the small number of potential riders at 4 am—operating all-night bus service on major trunk routes, especially in dense areas with low car ownership, is an entirely reasonable option, and one popular with many riders, especially low-income ones who often work late shifts.

Metro last considered all-night bus service in 2016, in response to push-back to the reduction of Metrorail service hours for maintenance, but the plan doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere. Furthermore, a plan for late-night service really needs to include the jurisdictional providers as well, since they provide service on important routes, too.

The region needs a good network of frequent routes

Of course, it’s not good enough for the bus you want to ride to be operating when you want it: if you have to wait an hour, or even half an hour, for the bus to arrive, you have to schedule your day around the bus schedule, and are more likely to look for other transportation options.

How frequent is “good enough” varies from route to route—very busy routes may need buses every five minutes or less at rush hour to avoid overcrowding—but a usual goal for “frequent” service is a bus every 10-12 minutes.

Portland’s frequent light rail and bus service by TriMet.

This sort of frequency allows people to ride the bus the same way they ride Metrorail: by just walking up to the station and waiting, rather than consulting a schedule to find out when the next bus is coming.

Obviously, not every bus route in the region can come every 10 minutes, but the region needs a good network of routes that come frequently connecting the denser parts of the region—and denser suburban development—to each other and to Metrorail.

Once a regional network of frequent buses with long operating hours exists, it should be marketed as such. Publishing a “frequent network” map would highlight the buses that casual riders can rely on to be frequent and to be operating all day and on weekends.

Speeding up service will make it easier to increase frequency and hours

Improving the frequency and period of service for bus routes is, organizationally speaking, a low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t require negotiating with other agencies as signal priority and dedicated lanes do, and it doesn’t make fundamental changes to institutional practices the way off-board fare collection and all-door boarding do.

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that increasing frequency and period of service for bus routes comes as a financial cost. Labor costs are a major—often as much as 70%—portion of the cost of operating bus service and, as a result, the cost of bus service scales roughly with the number of bus-hours of service (the number of buses times the number of hours they each operate).

Running more-frequent service for more hours a day will inevitably cost more. However, this can be mitigated by making the buses run faster: if it takes less time to complete a route, fewer buses will be needed to provide the same frequency of service on the route.

The other option for increasing frequency and operating hours without raising costs is to do a Jarrett Walker-style redesign of the network that reduces the number of routes to save money for more frequent service on the routes that remain.

This strategy has some value, but it is fundamentally a trade-off, since it means some users will have to walk further to get to a bus, or make extra transfers. On the other hand, running buses faster is a win-win solution: it both saves money and gets riders to their destinations faster.

Historical Bus Lanes by WMATA.

The region had 60 miles of dedicated bus lanes in the 1970s; it should have them again

Particularly at rush hour, the DC area’s traffic can be some of the worst in the nation. Buses, unlike Metrorail, are generally at the mercy of traffic. Although a bus full of passengers takes up much less road space than all of those passengers would if they were driving, as long as the roads remain congested, those passengers won’t get to their destinations any faster.

Although there are few dedicated bus lanes in the DC area, bus lanes are not a new idea in the region: during the 1960s and 1970s, the area built a 60-mile network of bus-only lanes. These lanes carried a significant number of commuters, but were largely converted to HOV lanes or eliminated after bus routes were truncated to newly-built Metrorail stations.

Establishing dedicated lanes for the region’s busiest Metrobus routes, and those that have to travel through particularly congested areas, would help make bus service more reliable and faster, helping to lower operating costs while giving passengers service.

Installing dedicated lanes can be tricky

The District’s only permanent bus lane at present is a 0.9 mile stretch on Georgia Avenue. While two-way lanes like this are optimal, getting them built can be difficult.

Transit agencies don’t generally own the roads they operate buses on, so cooperation with state and local road agencies is essential. Furthermore, removing parking or travel lanes can run into political opposition (and on some roads, including 16th Street, Federal government opposition).

Queue jump signal on 16th Street by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Where road widths or political opposition make two-way bus lanes impossible, one option is to use a single reversible-direction bus lane, as is planned for the 16th Street bus lanes. This can work well for roads that are very congested in the peak direction at rush hour.

Another option is to use “queue jump” lanes at intersections, allowing buses to get ahead of traffic at stoplights. These lanes avoid needing to add a bus lane for the whole length of the roadway, while avoiding the delays that congestion at long stoplights can cause. One queue jump lane already exists in the region: on 16th Street at U Street NW.

Signal priority gives buses priority

Another option for speeding up bus service is transit signal priority: the use of traffic signals that can extend a green light or shorten a red light to allow a bus to approach more quickly.

These signals can be politically easier than bus lanes, since they don’t require taking anything away from cars. However, there often has to be a limit to how often they can be triggered to avoid messing up signal timings.

Signal priority is already in use on a number of Metrobus routes in DC and Virgina, but it should be extended to more major roadways in all of the region’s jurisdictions. Furthermore, once signal priority transponders are installed on traffic lights, they should be available for use by jurisdictional buses (RideOn, DASH, TheBus, the Circulator, etc) as well as Metrobus.

Cashless boarding could speed up buses, but there are equity issues

While bus lanes and signal priority can provide a significant benefit in terms of speeding up bus service, they require cooperation between transit agencies and the agencies that own and maintain the region’s roadways.

Another option for speeding up bus service is to look for ways to reduce delays when buses load and unload at bus stops. (“Dwell time” at stops can take up 10-25% of a the length of a bus route.) One way to do this is to eliminate cash payments when people board the bus, and only allow payment by SmarTrip card.

WMATA is currently testing cashless boarding on the MetroExtra 79, but cashless boarding poses equity issues, since it requires all bus riders to have SmarTrip cards and a way to reload them. Particularly for bus routes that serve areas without good Metrorail coverage and with many unbanked residents who cannot reload online, this may not be a reasonable assumption.

If the region’s bus agencies do switch to cashless boarding, it may be necessary to provide additional ways for riders far from Metro stations to buy and reload SmarTrip cards. Options include fare machines at heavily used bus stops and allowing convenience stores to sell transit cards, as San Francisco and Boston do.

A bus has more than one door. Use them both.

With or without cashless boarding, another way to speed up boarding is to allow riders to board buses at rear doors. This can significantly speed up the process of getting on the bus, as well as better balancing passenger load throughout the bus, especially on long articulated buses.

Allowing passengers with bus passes to board through any door could be implemented without any new hardware, but a better option would be to add SmarTrip readers to the rear doors of buses so that all passengers with SmarTrip cards could board there. (Paying with cash would still require using the front door.)

One complication of all-door boarding is that the bus driver cannot ensure that all passengers pay. Instead, there would need to be roving fare inspectors, as used for “proof of payment” fares on rail transit systems in many American cities, especially on the West Coast, but also on the Baltimore Light Rail.

Unlike conductors on MARC and VRE trains, who collect every ticket, these fare inspectors would be few in number and make random spot-checks on buses throughout the system, issuing fine citations to anyone who couldn’t provide evidence that they had paid a fare.

DW Rowlands is a human geography grad student 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.

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.