Bus-only lane in DC by the author.

Buses in the District are slow and unreliable as its riders already know, but five key improvements could make them much more useful. That’s what the first-ever DC Metrobus report card study from the Coalition for Smarter Growth and MetroHero found.

The study was developed from real-time data collected in May 2019 by MetroHero. It shows that the District’s major bus routes suffer from poor reliability and sluggish speeds, which contribute to the system’s declining ridership. The companion joint report includes best practices, recommendations, and updates on recent steps by DC and Metro.

Bus service – essential and in trouble

Metrobus ridership in DC has dropped by a startling 12% over the last five years, a steeper annual decline than many peer cities including Chicago, New York City, and Atlanta. Metrobus, however, remains an important way for people to get around DC. On an average weekday, Metrobuses transport over 200,000 riders around the District on 298 miles of roadway, providing essential access to jobs and services far beyond the reach of Metrorail.

Bus service in DC is especially critical for low-income residents and people of color: These riders make up an overwhelming 82% of all Metrobus passengers, and 53% of riders earn under $30,000 a year, which is considered extremely low income.

The study collected data throughout May 2019 for 34 routes in the city’s nine high-ridership priority bus corridors, and the findings demonstrate the systemic challenges Metrobus riders encounter on a daily basis. The data show service is largely unreliable and unpredictable, with buses regularly arriving much later than scheduled, and headways rarely maintained. Buses showed up on time only 60% of the time over the entire month.

Meanwhile, bus speeds averaged just 9.5 mph over the entire month, which is consistent with the historical trends showing Metrobus speeds across the entire system getting slower every year. The poor performance of these 34 high-ridership bus routes earned the system a collective grade of “D.”

Image by the author.

Here’s what could make service better

The report makes recommendations in five key areas to improve speed, service reliability, and on-time performance for buses in the District, all drawn from best practices:

  1. Dedicated bus lanes: Give buses priority on the roadways in their own dedicated lanes to reduce delays caused by traffic congestion and allow for greater reliability;
  2. Faster boarding: Implement all-door boarding and cashless payment options to make the boarding process faster and more efficient, reducing dwell time at stops;
  3. Transit signal priority: Expand transit signal priority and queue jump locations to allow buses to spend less time waiting at traffic signals;
  4. Balanced bus stop spacing: Reduce how often buses need to stop to pick up passengers by adding limited-stop service and consolidating stops for local service;
  5. Customer-focused service: Improve the overall rider experience by upgrading bus stops to improve accessibility and provide amenities; providing free transfers between bus and rail; and offer new discounted fares for low-income riders.

Despite DC’s poor grades, the District government (which controls the roads and signals, and pays for transit service) and Metro (which operates Metrobuses and collects fares) are taking steps to turn around the bus system. DDOT recently implemented pilot bus lanes on H and I streets downtown, and is on track to run bus lanes on 16th Street and K Street in the near future. The city has also implemented traffic signal priority and queue jumps on several corridors.

DC and Metro launched their first limited-stop MetroExtra service (Georgia Avenue’s 79 route) in 2007 and the Priority Corridor Network initiative in 2008. The two agencies have adopted a number of best practices and service improvements since that time, including limited-stop service, transit signal priority on several routes, and a handful of queue jumps to give buses a head-start at intersections.

Unfortunately, full implementation of existing plans, especially for bus lanes, has been slow to non-existent, and DC and Metro have lagged behind other cities. Peer cities around the country have added miles of dedicated bus lanes over the last decade, but DC currently has only two miles of them, 1.4 miles of which are the temporary pilot rush hour bus lanes on H and I streets downtown which launched in June 2019. These downtown bus lanes serve 70 buses per hour during peak hours, on lines with 80,000 riders a day.

The H and I streets pilot of bus lanes could be the harbinger of a new era of better bus service. The District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) plans to implement rush hour bus lanes on 16th Street in 2020, along with ongoing current improvements to service and bus stops in the corridor. The K Street Transitway is scheduled to start construction in 2022.

DDOT also recently established a new Bus Priority Program to implement bus service improvements. It builds on numerous plans, including the District’s Long-Range Transportation Plan, moveDC. Adopted in 2014, moveDC proposed a network of 25 miles of dedicated surface transit lanes across the city. DDOT recently revealed plans to update moveDC for 2020.

Sources: see NYC [source], Seattle [source], SF [source], Miami [source], Chicago [source], or cited: Sources: Bus Turnaround - Fast Bus, Fair City (2018) | The Seattle Times | San Francisco MTA | Miami Herald | Back on the Bus: Speeding Up Chicago’s Buses (2019), cited in the Metrobus report card.

Metro is also setting its sights on improving bus service. This year, Metro convened a collaborative regional effort, known as the Bus Transformation Project, aimed at transforming the bus system for the entire Washington region. The draft recommendations from this include coordination with local governments to give priority to buses on local roads, all-door boarding, faster fare payment methods like mobile payment, free transfers between bus and rail, and discounted fare products for low-income riders (who make up a majority of Metrobus riders).

The District and Metro appear poised to make the political commitment to implement these kinds of improvements that could bring up bus service to an “A” performance. But decision-makers will need to hear from transit supporters if DC’s bus service is going to make the grade.

Cheryl Cort is Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She works with community activists, non-profit groups and government agencies to promote transit-oriented development, housing choices, economic development and pedestrian safety, especially in less affluent communities.

Jennifer Hill is an independent research consultant and software designer living in Arlington, VA. She received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from The George Washington University and has studied a variety of topics ranging from educational technology design and adult literacy acquisition to public transit. She is also the co-founder and Lead Researcher of MetroHero.