Fifty-six percent of Washington area residents think it’s a good idea to change some lanes on the roads into bus-only lanes at rush hour, according to a poll released Friday by the Washington Post. For DC residents, there was even stronger support, with 66%. Over half of people in Maryland and Virginia suburbs also said yes to the idea.
GGWash and other advocates have been pushing for bus lanes for many years. The Bus Transformation Project study, whose draft recommendations just came out, touted the potential value of dedicated bus lanes to making bus service more efficient across the region.
DC will pilot bus lanes on H and I Streets NW this summer that could speed up bus journeys. The bus lanes will start on June 3 and stretch from 13th to 20th on I St NW, and from between Pennsylvania and 18th to 14th on H St NW.
In 2020, the District Department of Transportation will also create a rush hour bus lane on 16th St NW, a corridor on which buses carry half of the travelers but take up a measly 3% of the space. It will be important to watch whether the city can enforce the lanes to keep drivers out and buses moving freely.
Decongestion pricing is less popular… the way the poll framed it, anyway
You might have missed the bus lane revelations in the Post’s article, which emphasized views on decongestion pricing. Among area residents, 34% expressed support for a “toll to drive into Washington, DC during high traffic times,” rising to 40% among DC residents, and dropping to 32% and 34% for those in Maryland and Virginia, respectively (which include fairly distant suburbs as well as closer in).
But those numbers reflect less opposition than some observers expected. People tend to reject proposals to pay for something that used to be free without considering the wider context.
WaPo: “Hey drivers, do you want to pay more money to do what you do now for free?”— Erik Salmi (@Erik_Salmi) May 17, 2019
WaPo: “WOW. Just Wow. This is very surprising.”
The more I think about it, it’s pretty surprising it’s that high in support.— Erik Salmi (@Erik_Salmi) May 17, 2019
Follow-up interviews conducted by the Post reinforced this explanation: It’s not hugely appealing to contemplate an extra daily charge if you don’t know where that money will end up, nor whether other transportation choices will be improved and become more viable. But this is a fundamental aspect of existing decongestion pricing systems: revenue raised is typically dedicated to improving public transportation services.
DC has been investing in supporting transportation outside of single-occupancy cars, with bus lanes, bike and scooter infrastructure, and other modes (ahoy, summer water taxi commute!). Exploring what decongestion pricing could look like for the District should go hand-in-hand with a careful, in-depth look at how to give current car commuters viable alternatives, like how to make the bus better.
Bike lane support is higher than you might expect
The poll also revealed burgeoning support for changing lanes of traffic to bike-only lanes in the region during rush hours. A slight majority (50% vs. 46%) of DC respondents support this option. The enthusiasm in the MD and VA suburbs is slightly more timid, but still promising at 42% and 40%, respectively.
Overall, the Post poll reflects classic responses to choices based on self interest and current information about the environment in which people commute and move. Maryland’s plans to widen I-270 and I-495 to accommodate yet more car traffic, juxtaposed with DC’s proposal to fund a study of decongestion pricing, reflect different ways of thinking about how that environment will look in the future. When roads have fewer cars on them and include space for buses and bikes, those “alternative” modes work much faster and become more reliable, appealing options for travelers.
In DC, we will have an opportunity very soon to see how well DDOT can deliver on the goal of a faster rush hour bus service. It could prove key to building on this strong enthusiasm for bus lanes, and maybe even turning some of those decongestion pricing “nays” into “yeas”.