Langley Park bus station by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

To stave off spiralling congestion and avoid reversing decades of economic growth, leaders in the Washington region must support a systematic overhaul of bus service, according to a draft study released Monday.

Commissioned by WMATA, the Bus Transformation Project looked at how the region’s bus services operate, perform, and are valued by consumers. It seeks to articulate how it could be significantly improved in light of downward trends in bus ridership in recent years.

Image from the Bus Transformation Project.

The draft report is aimed at getting leaders to make significant changes to both the service and the management of bus provision throughout the region. The top-line recommendations encourage policymakers to make bus service a much higher priority, and to work toward integrating the outward-facing functions of the region’s many different bus operators.

How can the region make buses better for riders?

The scope of the project included bus services throughout the region, which are run by any one of an array of operators, including WMATA and the Circulator, Ride On in Montgomery County, ART in Arlington, DASH in Alexandria, the Fairfax Connector, Loudon County Transit, the City of Fairfax’s CUE, and The Bus in Prince George’s County.

Independent services give jurisdictions greater flexibility over how to operate. They also result in a hodgepodge of services that makes journeys across multiple jurisdictions unnecessarily difficult, and therefore less likely for people to make by bus.

Image from the Bus Transformation Project.

A group of consulting firms made of up of AECOM, Boston Consulting Group, and Foursquare ITP conducted the study. Organizers are sharing their findings with the public and soliciting feedback at a series of open houses and pop-up events in DC, Virginia and Maryland throughout May. You can also weigh in on how you think bus services in the region could be improved by filling out this brief survey.

Making bus service a better option for travelers has been on the GGWash and DC Sustainable Transportation wish list for years. GGWash reported on the interim report from the Bus Transformation Report in December 2018, which found that:

  • The current regional bus rider cohort tends to be transit-dependent and racially diverse.
  • The majority of low-income residents of the region have access to “high-frequency” bus service (defined as buses that come every 15 minutes or less during peak hours).
  • Proximity of jobs to transit is unevenly distributed among the regional core (it’s higher in, for example, Arlington and the District) and surrounding suburbs (it’s lower in, for example, Prince George’s and Fairfax counties).

We also suggested priorities for the Bus Transformation Project’s outcomes back in September 2018, namely:

  • Improve actual bus service
  • Better integrate Metrobus and jurisdictional systems
  • Simplify bus numbering and information
  • Make the fares more fair
  • Improve and encourage passes
  • Reward bus improvement in the funding rules
  • Position WMATA to be a 21st century agency

So, what can we do better?

Transit planners have many tools for making bus service better. Dedicated bus lanes, placing bus stops to maximize efficiency or equity, frequency of service, signal priority, and other approaches can significantly affect the time it takes to get from A to B, and how sure you can be of that timing so you aren’t late to your job, daycare pickup, or the doctor’s office.

Arguably, the complexity of the overlapping bus networks serving residents of the Washington region means there’s even more that can be improved. Riders get frustrated with not being able to use the same passes and information sources for different services that may combine for multiple legs of the same journey.

The biggest wins may be from getting policymakers to value bus service and to be willing to make tradeoffs to support it. The study authors emphasized the need for policymakers to prioritize bus service by dedicating bus corridors across jurisdictions, which could speed up bus service substantially.

Bus lanes—which could help a lot—should be augmented by activities aimed at reducing congestion overall, like decongestion pricing (charging a fee to drive a car within set geographic boundaries) and better management of curbside access. And if we’re going to designate specific areas for buses and other modes of transport, those areas need to be appropriately enforced to avoid becoming a major, visible, and frustrating policy failure.

Frequency, speed, and convenience of bus service matter a great deal to riders (and potential riders, whom WMATA is ostensibly trying to capture). The report recommends that bus routes be revised to move greater numbers of people at the times they need to go somewhere. It outlines how the needs of customers in lower-density areas could be served by “on-demand” transit services (think micro-buses that could be summoned to a corner near you with an app within a set period of time), rather than standard bus service.

The draft report also suggests that the bus system should be “customer-focused” and “easy to ride.” It proposes making maps, fares, schedules and services more visible and understandable for potential riders, and creating transit passes and trip planning portals that are valid across multiple services. There’s also an emphasis on making transfers between rail and bus free.

Image from the Bus Transformation Project.

It’s easy to see the potential benefit here. It’s impractical to expect riders to incorporate multiple pay methods and means of planning their journey into every single commute, to say nothing of accepting “transfer penalties” for making journeys that include both bus and rail. In a nod toward equity and the particularly important need for bus service for individuals on lower incomes, authors argue for the importance of means-tested fare products.

The report also recommends a series of changes to how the bus system is managed, including revising how responsibilities are divided among local and regional bus providers and sharing back-office functions among different operators. Both these areas could yield considerable cost savings and service improvements if done well.

The “done well” part is also a featured recommendation. The report suggests appointing a regional task force to execute the project’s proposed changes and building accountability more thoughtfully throughout the system at both technical and political levels.

Are we going anywhere?

The project brought together regional stakeholders (including transit agencies, community and advocacy organizations) to try to build consensus around priorities and potential areas for change. That approach led to a broad set of guiding principles such as regional connectivity; rider experience; financial stewardship; sustainable economic health and access to opportunity; and equity. The consensus-building strategy may give it a better chance of achieving buy-in from decisionmakers, which will be key to whether its findings are implemented.

The authors of the study framed their draft recommendations in two ways: “prosperity in peril” and “a better way to get there”. There’s no real subtext here. Tying continued economic growth as well as reduction of carbon emissions to making bus service better can be seen as an implicit rebuke of approaches designed to promote car-based transportation in the long run, such as Governor Larry Hogan’s plan to widen the I-270 and I-495 highways in Maryland (which was selected over other plans to increase transit options, including a bus network).

The project’s findings prompted cheers from some bus service proponents, who would like to see local leadership step in decisively to improve and promote bus service.

Others expressed concern that the conclusions didn’t reflect an improvement on existing ideas in exchange for a hefty price tag.

Next steps

The Bus Transformation Project had an overarching goal of making the bus the “mode of choice on the region’s roads by 2030, serving as the backbone of a strong and inclusive regional mobility system that will support a growing and sustainable economy.”

It’s provided some fairly clear priorities, though far from a road map, for doing so. How would you change the region’s bus services, if you could? You don’t have to be an expert to weigh in. Take the survey to choose from various suggested improvements, and add your own if you like.

GGWash will be watching DC, Virginia, and Maryland’s leaders for reactions to the draft study. We know that more people on the bus is a good thing for equity, safety, the environment and economic growth.

Will the Bus Transformation Project turn out to be just a familiar excursion into the “what-ifs” of our public transportation system? Or will officials take this opportunity to make actionable plans and make themselves accountable for a transformed regional bus system?

Caitlin Rogger is the Policy Manager at Greater Greater Washington, focused on supporting equity and sustainability in transportation policy. Broadly interested in structural determinants of social, economic, and political outcomes in urban settings, she worked in public health prior to joining GGWash. She lives in Capitol Hill.