Two different ways for the same number of buses to run on the same network of streets.
Image by Jarrett Walker + Associates for the City of Alexandria.

Alexandria is redrawing its DASH bus lines from the ground up. In so doing, the community must choose between competing priorities: Will buses come as often as possible but on only a few streets, or cover more land with routes that come much less often? A new Choices Report lays out the questions in detail.

It's time for DASH to ask big questions

One of the great strengths of buses is how they can evolve over time in response to small-scale changes in cities. New lines can be added, or old ones taken away, with relative ease. The twists and turns of routes can change as new buildings open and close along their paths. This flexibility is a good thing.

But every so often, it makes sense to step back and look at the whole system. Is it doing what the community wants it to? Are all those minute choices that made sense in past years still appropriate today, and into the future?

Planners in Alexandria are asking just those questions in regards to DASH bus, as part of the new Alexandria Transit Vision Plan. The Choices Report they've produced is the first step toward redesigning the system. It lays out value choices for Alexandrians to decide, like whether to focus on ridership versus coverage, whether to minimize walking to stops or waiting for buses, and what level of investment is appropriate.

Where are Alexandria's buses & bus riders today?

This map shows you how many people board the bus at every bus stop in Alexandria.

Ridership at bus stops in Alexandria.
Image by Jarrett Walker + Associates for the City of Alexandria.

You can see several patterns:

1. In the eastern part of Alexandria, a few key corridors with many riders radiate out in straight lines from Old Town.

2. In the western part there are a lot of high-ridership bus stops, but it's hard to discern clear lines; the routes appear to be circuitous.

3. The central part of the city, around Rosemont, has several lines running through it but none get many riders.

4. DASH buses and WMATA buses serve many of the same stops.

Looking at a map of bus lines and how often they come shows other patterns:

Frequency of existing buses in Alexandria.
Image by Jarrett Walker + Associates for the City of Alexandria.

Among the patterns visible here:

1. There are relatively few frequent bus lines at midday, and effectively none in the western three-quarters of the city.

2. There are a lot of buses in the western part of the city, but they don't follow easy to understand lines, and many make unpredictable turns off their main route for small side trips.

3. In Old Town several important bus lines end at either Braddock Road Metro or King Street Metro. Bus riders hoping to connect between lines often have to use Metrorail to ride the half mile between those two stations.

4. Many lines have multiple branches. For example on Mount Vernon Avenue north of Old Town, the WMATA 10 bus goes to Braddock Road Metro, while the DASH 10 goes to King Street Metro.

The report also includes a map of peak service. It shows that at rush hours there are a lot of extra buses and more frequent lines all over the city, but the system is also even more complex and hard to understand all over the city—even Old Town.

Alexandria's five choices

As Alexandria's planners wipe the slate clean and redraw bus lines from scratch, they'll need the community to choose guiding principles. Specifically, the Choices Report poses five key questions, and asks residents to give feedback on each:

1. How should Alexandria balance high ridership with wide coverage? Should there be many infrequent routes that cover the whole city, or fewer more frequent lines?

2. How do Alexandrians value walking versus waiting? Assuming everyone cannot have a bus stop with frequent service right in front of their home, would they rather walk further to a more frequent bus, or walk a shorter distance and wait a longer time at the stop?

3. Do Alexandrians prefer connections or complexity? Is it better to have direct but infrequent buses to as many destinations as possible, or to have frequent buses on a few lines, but more trips involve connecting to a second bus?

One choice: Direct infrequent buses versus frequent ones that require a connection.
Image by Jarrett Walker + Associates for the City of Alexandria.

4. How much transit does Alexandria want? Should the community spend more, less, or the same amount of money on buses?

5. Peak-hour or all-day service? Should DASH concentrate on getting rush hour cars off the road, or providing convenient buses all day every day?

What should Alexandria do?

These are tough choices, and there are trade-offs either way.

To work on the Transit Vision Plan, Alexandria hired consultants Kimley-Horn and Jarret Walker + Associates. The blank slate redesign is similar to work Walker's company has done in cities like Richmond and Houston.

You can download the Choices Report, then weigh in with your opinion via an online survey and/or in person during public workshops on October 16 and 18. The first workshop is tonight!

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.

Julie Strupp is Greater Greater Washington's Managing Editor. She's a journalist committed to building inclusive, equitable communities and finding solutions. Previously she's written for DCist, Washingtonian, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and others. You can usually find her sparring with her judo club, pedaling around the city, or hanging out on her Columbia Heights stoop.