WMATA Metrobus by MW Transit Photos used with permission.

Earlier this year, participants in the Bus Transformation Project, a regional consensus-building exercise led by WMATA, came together to study the region's bus network. Business, transportation, and community leaders and all of the region's nine bus service providers are taking part. Their work will provide a roadmap for making improvements to bus service that will be released for public input in Fall 2019.

In October, the consulting team released a draft report on the region's bus system as it currently stands. This analysis looked at four main points: customer expectations and demands; regional coordination and current funding formulas; the role technology plays; and financial stability moving forward. It doesn't strive to make specific policy prescriptions, but rather provide context for future decisions. GGWash also ran a series on ways to improve bus service in the Washington region.

The report is full of detailed analysis and figures and is worth an in-depth read. Here are a few main takeaways:

1. Bus users tend to be racially-diverse and transit-dependent

The report found that bus users are more likely to be low-income or zero-car households. There's also a greater chance that they are a racial minority or limited English speaker. This is backed up by surveys from some jursidictions that show more than 60% of riders are non-white, and that three out of four riders do not have access to a car.

Image by Washington Area Bus Transformation Project.

2. Three-quarters of the region's low-income households have access to good bus service

Of the total number of low-income households in the region, the report found 75% have access to high-frequency bus service during peak periods. (High-frequency is defined here as a bus every 15 minutes or less, though that's not really high-frequency service.)

Image by Washington Area Bus Transformation Project.

DC has the highest concentration of low-income households with 25% defined as low-income, 97% of whom have access to high-frequency peak service. Prince George's County has the second largest concentration of low-income households at 15%, but only 61% of these households have similar bus access. Alexandria and Arlington score best in terms of low-income household access to high-frequency peak bus service, providing more or less universal accessibility.

3. Jobs in the region's core are accessible by transit, but not so in the suburbs

Many of the region's jobs tend to be more concentrated near high-frequency transit. In DC, 94% of jobs are within a quarter mile of high frequency bus lines, and Arlington does even better at 99% access. Less urban jursidictions, like Fairfax and Prince George's counties, have significantly worse access. Only 57% and 46%, respectively, of their jobs are accessible by high-frequency buses.

Image by Washington Area Bus Transformation Project.

On average, a household in the region has access to 1.4 million jobs (roughly 50% of all jobs) within 45 minutes by car, compared to only 580,000 (20%) using transit. But by 2040, transit is expected to improve relative to driving because of increasing congestion, with 21% of the region's jobs accessible within 45 minutes of transit compared to 38% for driving.

4. WMATA provides a large chunk of the the region's service

The region's bus routes are divided into two broad categories: regional and non-regional. WMATA is responsible for planning and operating any regional route. Local jurisdictions are responsbile for non-regional ones, but can choose to contract the operation out to another entity, including WMATA.

Image by Washington Area Bus Transformation Project.

Given all this, it's no surprise WMATA provides a big chunk of the region's service. The majority of service in DC, Prince George's County, and Fairfax County is provided by Metrobus. Even though Alexandria, Arlington, and Montgomery counties have their own bus services, Metrobus still provides up to half of all service in those areas.

This also means a lot of daily transfers to, from, and between Metrobus routes—about 18,000 between Metrobus and other operators and nearly 50,000 from one Metrobus to another. More than a quarter of Metrobus transfers are from a connecting system. On average, there is about a 12-minute wait when transferring between buses.

Image by Washington Area Bus Transformation Project.

5. Technology could be impacting transit share

The report notes that rides through Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), also known as ride-hailing, have grown exponentially over the last five years and coincide with bus ridership losses in the Washington region.

Pricepoints for some of these services, like Uber and Lyft, have decreased in the last few years, making them more competitive with transit. Other “on-demand” modes like bikeshare have grown as well, but still represent a small fraction of total trips in the region.

Image by Washington Area Bus Transformation Project.

Technology does offer some potential benefits to bus operators. Initiatives like Transit Signal Priority and real-time apps can make transit more efficient and provide a better customer experience. New electric and alternative fuel systems could reduce operating costs and increase efficiency, as could autonomous technology, though this presents challenges, too.

A regional network needs a regional solution

Of course, a regional network of bus operators means dealing with dozens of government agencies and other entities. The report briefly touches on all this, summarizing the WMATA Compact, state and local officials, and funding mechanisms for the region's bus services.

The report points out that subjective categorization of regional and non-regional routes, along with complex funding structures, “undermines WMATA's ability to be effective in its Compact-defined role of regional bus planner.” These issues will need to be addressed before making largescale service changes.

Image by Washington Area Bus Transformation Project.

The full document can be found here. What else do you see in the report?

Travis Maiers spent most of his life in South Florida before moving to the Washington region in 2009. He has a degree in International Studies from American University and works at a DC non-profit focused on international economic policy. He currently resides in the Forest Hills neighborhood of DC and enjoys learning about all things related to transportation and urban planning.