WMATA and Ride-On buses at Silver Spring Transit Center by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The Bus Transformation Project is a regional consensus-building exercise led by WMATA. 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. Here's #2, integrating the region's buses.

If you’re trying to take a bus from one place to another, you don’t care if a local government or WMATA owns the bus and hires the driver, or who pays for it. But which government runs a bus line does affect how it's illustrated on maps, what websites let you track it, and what fares and passes cover it. Could this all be simpler?

The region has a lot of local transit providers

WMATA was originally intended only to build and operate Metrorail, not to be a bus provider. But the financial collapse of DC Transit, the private company that operated the District’s buses, led to a 1971 amendment to its charter to allow it to operate buses.

In 1973, three years before Metrorail opened, Metro took over DC Transit; the Washington, Virginia, and Maryland Coach Company; the Alexandria, Barcroft, and Washington Transit Company in Northern Virginia; and the Washington, Marlboro, and Annapolis Transit Company in Prince George’s County.

The region found itself with a single agency providing bus and rail service, eliminating inter-agency barriers to network planning and legibility. However, by the 1980s, area cities and counties began operating their own jurisdictional bus services.

DASH bus sign by Ser Amantio di Nicolao licensed under Creative Commons.

Today, our region has a variety of transit providers including Metro, Ride On in Montgomery County, Prince George’s TheBus, the DC Circulator, Fairfax (County) Connector, Arlington’s ART, Alexandria’s DASH, and the City of Fairfax’s CUE, not to mention suburban commuter bus services. Still, WMATA serves 89% of weekday bus trips in the region.

The bus networks should be better integrated

Having a large number of bus providers in the region is not a case where competition improves service. After all, bus lines don’t generally directly compete. And when they do—such as the Metrobus 83 and 86 and TheBus 17 that serve US-1 in Maryland with slightly different routes—it can lead to inconsistent gaps between buses and a harder to navigate system.

Riders don’t care which government operates their bus, but they do care if they can pay a fare for one but not another. They also care if it's easy to find schedules or real-time information for some but not all.

Fixing this can start with bus maps showing all routes, regardless of provider, with the type of service rather than who operates it most prominent. (WMATA’s main bus maps online mostly do this, though they don't show commuter buses, nor do they show the DC streetcar.) Likewise, it would be optimal if all bus schedules and information throughout the region could be on a single website, rather than divided across many with different formats.

The Fairfax Connecter by MJW15 licensed under Creative Commons.

Fortunately, transit apps can integrate schedule data from many providers thanks to an open data standard called General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), but bus systems started offering this, and then added real-time tracking, at different rates. And, if you go to BusETA, which is listed on Metrobus signs, it only shows Metrobus and the DC Circulator.

And fares. We’re fortunate that SmarTrip works on all buses, but passes and transfer fares don’t. (More on that later). The Metrobus pass doesn’t work on Ride On. The DASH pass works on DASH and Fairfax Connector, but no others.

What about a completely unified branding for different services? What if you simply decided to ride the Washington Unified Bus #123, and don’t need to know or care if Montgomery County or Alexandria or WMATA actually operates it? The buses could have a unified map and route numbering scheme.

Not possible? Germany does this, where most metro areas have integrated route planning, signs, even route numbers and tickets.

One small example of this already exists and could be a good model for the region as a whole: the T2 route along River Road in Potomac. On weekdays, there is a Metrobus T2; on weekends, a Ride On T2. It follows the same route in both cases. Weekday and weekend service both appear in the same Metrobus PDF schedule, even though on weekends a Ride On bus runs the route.

Internally to WMATA, we have regional and non-regional Metrobus lines

Not all bus routes are created equal. Some routes are local collectors that wind through residential neighborhoods, bringing passengers to transfer locations, while others are long-distance trunk lines. Likewise, many routes naturally fit within a single jurisdiction and primarily serve local residents, while others cross jurisdictional lines and carry passengers from throughout the region.

To resolve this issue, WMATA classifies all Metrobus routes as “regional” or “non-regional.” Regional routes are ones that cross jurisdictional lines or are considered to have “regional significance.”

There are different funding formulas for the two categories. Regional route costs are lumped into a single pool, and the jurisdictions pay toward this pool according to a formula that takes into account their population, their number of bus riders system-wide, and the number of miles and bus-hours of regional bus service in each jurisdiction.

Non-regional routes, on the other hand, are paid for directly by the jurisdictions with a fixed fee per bus-hour of service. Since the individual jurisdictions pay directly for these routes, they also have more of a say in planning them.

Jurisdictions fund their own bus networks instead of non-regional Metrobus for different reasons

Some jurisdictions—primarily the District and Prince George’s County—rely heavily on Metrobus non-regional service for their local bus service, while others—Montgomery County and the Northern Virginia jurisdictions—provide most of their local service through their own jurisdictional networks.

The main reason that jurisdictions provide their own bus service, rather than funding Metrobus non-regional routes, is to save money: most jurisdictions say they spend less per bus-hour than the rate Metro charges for non-regional routes. (Though that’s a disputed fact, since jurisdictions also don’t count the cost of, say, police dealing with fare evasion as “bus spending” since it’s baked into the general municipal police cost, but Metro does include the cost of its police force in its figures.)

TheBus at College Park UM Station by MJW15 licensed under Creative Commons.

In Maryland, things are somewhat more complicated, as an agreement between the state and Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties gives the state the right to appoint the counties’ representatives to the WMATA Board in exchange for paying the counties’ full WMATA bills.

This agreement means that all regional and non-regional Metrobus service in Maryland is paid for by the state, and that the jurisdictions have to operate their own bus routes if they want additional local service provided beyond what the state is willing to pay for. (However, the state does partly subsidize Ride On and TheBus.)

The DC Circulator is another special case: the Circulator was created not to save money for the District, but to create a new brand of premium bus service to attract tourists, visitors, and others who avoided the Metrobus system, by providing a limited number of frequent routes with identifiable branding and lower fares than Metrobus.

In Virginia, it’s easier for a route to cross jurisdictional lines since there are simply more jurisdictions, including smaller ones, than elsewhere.

Should Metrobus have a clearer “mission”?

Ideally, there could be a simple rule for whether a bus line is a Metro regional line or a jurisdictional line. For instance, it’s been suggested that maybe Metro should run only the long-distance trunk lines, and neighborhood feeder routes ought to change over to the local jurisdictions.

That’s a bit easier said than done, however. Some jurisdictions have the capacity to take on a lot of bus service, and some don’t. In DC and Prince George’s, where Metro runs most local buses, the local agencies would struggle to manage a suddenly much larger system.

Nor do they have the garages for it; would WMATA transfer garages to localities? But then where would the remaining regional buses park? Plus, since the State of Maryland pays for Metrobus service, who would pay, and how, if routes left Metrobus? What about lines that are more local in nature but cross between, say, Alexandria and Fairfax?

Image by MW Transit Photos used with permission.

However, perhaps the right boundaries between Metrobus and local buses can be drawn for the long term, and the networks could transition over a longer period of time. In Virginia, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), which contains all WMATA jurisdictions in Virginia, is allowed in its charter to run bus service, so it’s possible Virginia boundary-crossing routes could go to NVTC, though this would be a significant expansion of its mission.

In all likelihood, most or all of the jurisdictional bus networks are here to stay, especially since they do allow jurisdictions more control over their local bus service and the ability to make decisions like offering lower fares. (For instance, TheBus and Circulator cost $1/ride, while the other jurisdictional networks mostly charge the same fare as Metrobus.)

However, more work needs to be done to coordinate regional planning, so that the region’s bus network as a whole can be designed to work well together to eliminate duplication of service, poorly-timed transfers and, service gaps caused by having multiple providers.

Likewise, standards for service should be as similar as possible between the different providers. Decisions about hours of service and frequencies for different lines should depend on the natures of the lines, but not be constrained by who operates them.

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.

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.